History of the Panchan Lama Tashi Lhunpo Project

Banner photo above: Ruth Hayward, Founding Executive Director, PLTLP


Establishment of our Organization

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The following is a touching personal narrative about Khen Rinpoche, written by Ruth Hayward, founding Executive Director of the Panchen Lama Tashi Lhunpo Project.  Ruth passed away Tuesday, June 11, 2013 at home in Pasadena, Calif., after a seventeen-month battle with brain cancer. 

Living with a High Tibetan Lama and Learning about the Panchen Lama in our California Home

- Ruth Hayward, Ph.D

published in L.A. Yoga Magazine, June 2007, Volume 6/ Number 5

It is 5:30 in the morning at the Yoga of Los Altos Studio where Khen Rinpoche Kachen Lobzang Tsetan, Abbot of Tashi Lhunpo in exile, has been invited to give a short teaching and lead a meditation.

He has already told me that yoga and meditation are very complementary and especially beneficial when practiced together. He used to practice Ashtanga. He says that yoga makes the body healthy and flexible just as meditation does for the mind.

I don’t yet practice either but realize it is going to be hard to resist his teaching by example as well as in words. Khen Rinpoche meditates at least six hours every day. In our California home, where we are hosting him for about two months, his chanting begins about 5 A.M. and is sweetly punctuated by the sound of a bell. It represents emptiness and wisdom, to complement the “right practice” of compassion. To my mind, most of the themes of his prayers and meditations converge on the topics of compassion, altruistic mind, loving-kindness and cherishing of others rather than self.

Once I asked him to tell me the names of the various prayers he makes. They were preceded by numbers like “100” or “1000” of this or that. He counts the repetitions on his mala or string of prayer beads that is usually wrapped around his left wrist, then loosened for practice, and on a shorter string, to mark the hundreds. It took around 20 minutes for him just to list the items in his morning practice.

He emerges about 9 or so for breakfast and then either returns to his room behind a Tibetan door curtain that we have hung so that he will feel a bit more at home or he keeps appointments for teachings or events that I have set up for fundraising for his monastery. At his request, I have accepted to help him as the Executive Director for the Panchen Lama Tashi Lhunpo Project, (see tibetfund.org/tashi_lhunpo_special.html). Our activities are usually planned so that he can complete what we call his “work” each day. He prays for the enlightenment of all sentient beings. His evening meditation sessions sometimes continue to midnight if we are not careful. The Dalai Lama, he tells me, usually goes to sleep about 9 P.M. and then is up at 3 A.M. for his own practice. So far, Khen Rinpoche is not on that schedule, for which I am grateful. Much as we want to be helpful, that could be a difficult schedule for us to live with comfortably.

When we find ourselves with a tight schedule or on a long road trip, Khen Rinpoche kindly adapts to our plans for him and chants and meditates in the car, first with a Refuge Prayer for Equanimity and Developing Altruistic Mind; then the Gyunchok Sumpha, praising the three jewels; followed by the Ganden Lagema – the 100 Deity Practice – and Guruyoga Puja, by the 4th Panchen Lama; and then Long-life Prayers for both the Dalai Lama and the Panchen Lama, and so on. I try to memorize our route as marked by his various prayers but am usually too distracted while we are driving to have much success.

Today I am very happy that I can just sit and concentrate on his teaching, as the yoga students will.

A small group of advanced yoga practitioners is waiting in the studio. They sit quietly, breathing regularly and softly. From personal experience, I know that theirs is a great opportunity to be in the presence of a Tibetan “Precious Teacher.”

Some history of Tashi Lhunpo makes it evident that the Abbot must have special qualities indeed to lead and care for the monastery, its monks and traditions. Khen Rinpoche tells me that the 1st Dalai Lama himself was also the first head of the monastery in Shigatse, Tibet, back in the 15th century. Then in the 17th century, the 5th Dalai Lama gave it as a thank you gift to his teacher, the 4th Panchen Lama. Since then, Tashi Lhunpo has been the traditional seat of each reincarnated Panchen Lama or “Great Scholar and Teacher.” At one point the monastery had over 5,000 monks and was a great university and teaching and practice center for Tibetan philosophy and religion.

After the Chinese Invasion of Tibet in 1951 and then the 1959 Tibetan uprising and flight of the Dalai Lama from Lhasa, Chinese Communist government troops and officials came to Tashi Lhunpo to prevent any “problems” there. According to Khen Rinpoche, they destroyed five Panchen Lama temples and three colleges. Most senior monks were imprisoned. Without their teachers and faced with imposed new “rules,” some monks committed suicide. The 10th Panchen Lama could not escape and soon was taken away. In his last speech at the monastery, Khen Rinpoche remembers that the Panchen Lama indicated that he was not given any choice. He said he did not want to leave a “black spot” behind in his history. He tried to influence the communist government treatment of the Tibetans for the better.

In 1962, the 10th Panchen Lama submitted a 70,000-character petition to Mao Zedong and Zhou Enlai, in which he described abuses and atrocities that the Tibetans had suffered from the Chinese army. As a consequence, he was sentenced to a 10-year prison term. In 1989, shortly after he made a strong political speech at Tashi Lhunpo, the 10th Panchen Lama suddenly died. Poisoning has been suspected.

Khen Rinpoche remembers the beginning when the tanks came “to protect” the monastery. Since he is an Indian citizen, he was among those allowed to leave. In 1960, he was taken to the border and then walked, rode horses, went by car, truck or train, over a period of many months and in a circuitous route before he could return to Ladakh. It was another three years before he could continue his formal studies of Tibetan philosophy and Buddhist practice in India. Later he traveled to the United States where he teaches and lives for part of each year.

Gedun Choekyi Nyima, the boy recognized as the reincarnated 11th Panchen Lama, and who should be on the “throne” of Tashi Lhunpo monastery in Tibet, has instead been missing for 12 years. Born on April 25, 1989, he was only six when the Chinese Government took him and his family away a few days after the then Abbot named the boy as the reincarnate, based on communications with the Dalai Lama about his choice. That Abbot is still under house arrest, even after serving a 10-year prison term for his role. Meanwhile, the Chinese Government had named and educated another boy as the Panchen Lama, in an apparent attempt to limit and control the influence with Tibetans of His Holiness the Dalai Lama and His Holiness the Panchen Lama.

The Tibetan community and their supporters tend not to recognize the “Chinese Panchen” and hope that the authentic Panchen Lama, now 18 years old, will be freed, possibly to come to Tashi Lhunpo, Bylakuppe, India, outside of Chinese control. The monastery was re-established there in 1972, under the auspices of the 14th Dalai Lama.

His Holiness recently appointed Khen Rinpoche Tsetan as Abbot of Tashi Lhunpo in exile. Despite its great importance and history, the monastery is the poorest and smallest of all the exile monasteries, now with about 270 monks, ages 4 to 94, compared to the thousands who were at the monastery in Tibet earlier. Khen Rinpoche’s task is to build up the monastery again and make it suitable for the traditions of the Panchen Lama and Dalai Lama, and to educate and care for the monks there, many of whom are little children. Eventually he wants to increase the number of monks to some 1,500 and attract adequate support for them.

Some of the practitioners at the yoga studio in Los Altos were already familiar with this story while others were not. When we arrive, there seems to be an air of keen anticipation in the room, as though the group senses that something deeply moving and special is about to happen.

Khen Rinpoche enters in the maroon and saffron robes of the Gelukpa lineage and settles himself on a cushion provided at the front of the room. He is surrounded by flowers and greenery. His smile is luminous and warm. He gives a short dedication prayer and then a brief teaching to prepare the class for meditation.

He tells us that the mind is pure, clear and luminous. We learn that there are obstructions, like clouds, that can keep us from knowing the purity of our minds but that we can clear away our ignorance. He tells us about the afflictive emotions that may control us. They include anger and pride and jealousy and desire and so on. He invites us to visualize all our male relatives on our right side, all the female relatives on the left side, our enemies in front of us and strangers or neutral beings behind us. He points out that in the ocean of cyclic existence, in which Tibetans believe we are constantly reborn unless and until we reach enlightenment, the various people around us are reborn and change places from one lifetime to another. In short, all have been, for example, our mothers. He asks us, then, to consider everyone with loving-kindness, as though he or she were our own mother. He allows that in our culture not everyone feels love towards his or her mother. Then he asks us to consider that the mother herself may have been under afflictive emotions but did the best that she could, and in any case each mother sheltered an unborn child in the womb. Khen Rinpoche reminds us that our best friend may become our enemy; our enemy, our friend; strangers may become one or the other or both and so on, forever, until we may reach enlightenment on behalf of all sentient beings. Therefore, he gently prods us, if we do not want suffering, we should learn loving-kindness towards all the beings surrounding us in our visualization. He invites us to breathe in imagined Blessings of the Buddha and the Bodhisattva body, speech and mind qualities, in the form of multicolored light, to purify ourselves. Then he guides us to breathe out all our misdeeds, defilements and bad qualities, in the form of imagined smoke or soot, to purify ourselves. He asks us to meditate feeling pure and clean.

This is a very different practice than one that tells us yoga or meditation are mainly good for our bodies; they reduce our blood pressure, help us with physical ailments and improve physical health. Khen Rinpoche’s practice is primarily meditation, not yoga in the style of assuming this or that pose. He is concerned with the content of our minds and has us meditate on the subject of love. I make a note to ask him about his training in physical yoga – he does sit cross-legged for hours – as well as the meditation he would have us combine with it.

Shortly after we are back from the teachings, I am surprised to see him practicing dance steps. Suddenly he is still, poised with a foot raised and his hands in a beautiful gesture. I remember that Tashi Lhunpo is well-known for its dances, music and special mudras or hand gestures.

He smiles and says, “Maybe we should try to have a center in California, Tashi Lhunpo, West.”

There is so much to learn from a Precious Teacher in our midst.

Ruth Hayward, Ph.D. (Social Anthropology, Harvard), Executive Director of the Panchen Lama Tashi Lhunpo Project, had a distinguished international academic career, followed by positions with the United Nations and UNICEF, in Rome, South Asia, Mexico, Eritrea, Florence and New York City.