I have never met Lama Shenpen but when she answered the telephone, her intonation sounded familiar: I recognized it from the recordings I have heard of her teachings. Her style was as I expected: straightforward, open and peppered with laughter. Like many Buddhist Lamas, she has a good sense of humour; not the elusive Eastern humour but the direct English one, and thankfully I get it.
For ten days in December 2002, Ajahn Suphan, the Abbot of Wat Ranpoeng in Chiang Mai, Thailand had been my meditation teacher. I had never tried to meditate or studied Buddhism before and I followed my wife on this silent retreat out of curiosity. Every day at around 5pm the western students in their white pyjamas would gather at the Abbot’s office for their ten minutes’ audience. Ajahn Suphan proved to be a polite man, always busying himself with something during our awkward prostrations and often making small talk to put us at ease. On one afternoon, he had company: a hermit monk had just returned from the mountains and was chatting to him when I entered his office. The two roared with laughter and the Abbot courteously translated the joke so that I would not wonder whether they were laughing at me. The story involved a mischievous boy putting a raw goose egg in the monk’s alms bowl, where only ready to eat food is meant to go. To this day, the hilarity of the story remains – to me – sadly lost in translation. When I think about that goose egg, I wonder what the Thai equivalent of Monty Phython might be and whether I would get their jokes… And I bask in the good fortune of having found a western Buddhist teacher.
Having embarked upon Lama Shenpen’s long distance course Discovering the Heart of Buddhism, I became intrigued by this English woman who became a learned scholar and teacher of Tibetan Buddhism in the Kagyu tradition, who has founded a hermitage in North Wales, built a Sangha (religious community) and designed a deceptively simple, profound and deeply stirring course to guide others in their spiritual quest. What bit her? I wondered. So I asked whether I could interview her and quench my curiosity. The result was an inspiring long distance phone conversation that retraced some of the key turning points in Lama Shenpen’s path.
Lama Shenpen Hookham was born Susan Kathryn Rowan in 1946 in Essex, UK; she was raised in the Anglican tradition but religious fervour was not a family feature: indeed both her father and grandfather had been communist and atheist. She described her father as an intelligent man, who came back from a trip to Russia convinced that the masses needed electricity more than revolution; put himself through evening college and became an engineer.
Lama Shenpen discovered Buddhism at Reading University, where she was studying Geography and Sociology. At the beginning of her university years, she had felt strongly Christian but thought that she needed to learn about other religions too so she started reading about Buddhism. The Reading University Buddhist Society was being set up at that time and they asked her to help so she became involved in inviting speakers. Being the person organizing the talks meant that she had the opportunity to meet all the teachers. Chögyam Trungpa Rinpoche – among others – used to go to Reading, spend the day with the students and then give a talk to the Buddhist Society in the evening. She said of the experience: “At that point I was Anglican; I had read the Bible but I had not read theological texts written by Christian thinkers. Like a lot of people, I saw religion as a do-it-yourself sort of thing, it was Buddhism that woke me up to the sense that it requires more than that: that there were teachers and you could go to them and be taught, which was a big revelation for me. I might have got that from Christianity too but I never did”.
What turned an interest in other religious traditions into the life transforming decision to follow the Buddhist path was the idea that you can discover the truth through your practice. Lama Shenpen: “I thought: my experience of religion is all about believing what I am told but Buddhism is about discovering something within yourself, for yourself, in your experience and I can tell myself whether it is true or not, which I thought was AMAZING! I was totally amazed by that […]. So I picked up the challenge and thought: OK, I am not going to just believe things, I am going to only go with what I can know from my own experience”.
Independent thinking came up several times in our conversation and to me this is one of the defining features of Lama Shenpen, who scraped through her first years at school until self-directed research projects woke her interest up and allowed her formidable intellect to shine through; who after university announced to her bewildered family that she was travelling to India – where she studied Tibetan language, Buddhism and practiced meditation for six years – and left them wondering: “what went wrong with Susan?”; who years later, given the choice between two possible directions, decided to follow the guidance of Khenpo Tsültrim Gyamtso Rinpoche instead of that of His Holiness Rangjung Rigpei Dorje, the sixteenth Gyalwa Karmapa, head of the Kagyu lineage and – after the Dalai Lama – possibly the most revered figure in Tibetan Buddhism. It is not surprising that such an independent mind could not let go of the “challenge” –as she puts it – to find out the truth for herself.
I know from experience that inspiring teachers can have a profound impact on one’s formation and life choices but I also know that a teacher’s guidance needs a receptive pupil to work its magic and – even allowing for the heightened social environment of the late ‘60s – I would not presume that the decision of joining a nunnery in India could be taken lightly, so I asked what in her background allowed Lama Shenpen to be open to the religious path. She believes that her affinity for spirituality is innate and that she felt an intuitive sense of connection with the Divine from very early on: she remembers being a little girl, waking up early one Christmas morning and singing a hymn she found at the back of a book and feeling her mind go quiet when singing inspiring words like “holy” or “God”, “Almighty” and “truth”. She also remembers how unimpressed her family was with her outburst of spontaneous religious fervour and – her singing starting at 5.30 in the morning – she does not blame them.
There also was a sudden premonition when she was only 10 years old and, during a headstand, she had a strong sense – a calling – that she would become a nun. The thought stayed with her all through her teens but she did not know any nun or how to become one or whom to speak to about such a thing so she let that thought hover in her mind and did not do anything about it.
Having gotten a fairly consistent image of a not rebellious but single minded kid who, upon reflection, agrees with her mum’s assessment that “Susan never does anything that she does not want to do” and who thinks about joining a nunnery in India not as a break with the past but as a “smooth trajectory”, the obvious next step in her spiritual development, I got onto the “serious business” of tracing Lama Shenpen’s lineage: the Buddhist teachers who inspired her most and who were most influential in her formation. What I gathered from her answers is that she experienced two key transformative periods: the six years spent in Northern India and the years spent preparing her PhD thesis at the Oriental Studies’ department of Oxford University. In both instances she had access to impressive teachers, who guided her growth and accomplishments.
Lama Shenpen credits Chögyam Trungpa Rinpoche as her most inspirational teacher at Reading University. It was he who suggested that she should go to India to further her studies and who sent her to Tilokpur Nunnery, where Lama Karma Thinley Rinpoche gave “a very good grounding” to her studies. Kalu Rinpoche happened to be teaching at Dalhousie at the time so she had the opportunity to receive some transmissions (teachings) from him and, when Karma Thinley Rinpoche moved to Canada, she started studying with Kalu Rinpoche’s main student: Bokar Rinpoche, “who was a HUGE influence – she said – he was a great meditation teacher. He taught me Tibetan and I did all my early study with him one-on-one. It was FANTASTIC, ABSOLUTELY FANTASTIC; it was such a privilege! For five years, I used to get teaching from him for an hour or two every day for months on end; just me. It was really amazing. He really gave me a good basic training in the practice of meditation. He was a wonderful example of how to live the Buddhist life. I was very very lucky”.
Lama Shenpen’s Indian retreat came to an end when His Holiness the 16th Karmapa asked her to return to Europe and become a teacher. Her talent and potential had been spotted before by Kalu Rinpoche, who had earlier suggested that she should start teaching but she had managed to dodge that bullet; the Karmapa proved harder to put off and she eventually relented. In the mid-70s, the Karmapa was preparing his first visit to the West and was keen to build a base of teachers that could help practitioners that might have become inspired by his visit. Lama Shenpen says she greatly enjoyed her meditative life in India and she did not feel ready to teach; she also did not have any means to support herself in the West and was concerned that becoming financially dependent on others would hamper her freedom. She told all that to the Karmapa and his – to my eyes very Tibetan – answer was: “Don’t worry about it, it will be all right!”.
What followed was a confused period when Lama Shenpen tried different ideas generated by the Karmapa, which did not work often due to the lack of resources. She half-jokingly remembers: “All my teachers would say: “The Karmapa knows the three times [the past, present, and future], you should ask the Karmapa what to do” so I thought: “OK, well if he knows the three times, presumably he knows what I should be doing and my teachers tell me to follow his guidance so I will”, but his guidance proved impractical.
One of the suggestions was for her to become the teacher for a group in Manchester led by a person, who is now a teacher in his own right and has taken the name of Jampa Thaye. Lama Shenpen: “It was a bizarre situation: Jampa Thaye at the time was just a student; he had no money, nobody had any money. I was supposed to be there as a teacher but how could I live? I had no money to live on”. Another idea was for her to receive teachings from Ato Rinpoche in Cambridge but that did not work out either.
Eventually she met Khenpo Tsültrim Gyamtso Rinpoche and had a very strong feeling of connection with him. The Karmapa, who had the greatest regard for Khenpo Rinpoche suggested that she should do a 3-year retreat and receive teachings from him but Khenpo Rinpoche did not like the idea and sent her instead to Oxford University to study more. “I think that that was very perceptive of him because I had never really studied… I did: I learnt Tibetan, I learnt the practice texts, the meditation texts but I did not really know the doctrinal background very well. I had a lot of instructions but I did not really know the tradition. Khenpo Rinpoche said: “if you want to be able to help people with their questions, you really need to know the tradition” and I think he was right and I also needed to know the real meaning of the Tathagatagarbha [the Buddha nature] teachings and the Shentong interpretation of the Tathagatagarbha. I needed to know better what Buddha nature meant. Although I had a lot of excellent pointing out instructions I had not really connected it properly and I really feel that what Khenpo Rinpoche said to me then was absolutely vital and key and pivotal in my life. Sending me back to Oxford to study Tathagatagarbha doctrine and write about the Shentong view. This was really, really important”.
Khenpo Rinpoche suggested Trungpa Rinpoche as a teacher for Lama Shenpen but she felt a bit intimidated by his fame and bewildered by the many stories surrounding his figure so she decided to contact one of his British students, instead. She had started setting up a student Buddhist society in Oxford and she invited Michael Hookham [now Lama Rigdzin Shikpo] to give a talk there. Michael Hookham had met Trungpa Rinpoche in his twenties and had been initiated by him to the Dzogchen teachings. Student and teacher used to spend entire weekends together and the detailed notes that Michael took on those occasions became the basis for his practice and teachings. Lama Shenpen described Michael Hookham as a learned and meticulous disciple of Trungpa Rinpoche, a great teacher and a “kindred spirit”. The two married not long after moving to Oxford.
The ten years spent researching and writing her dissertation at Oxford were an intense learning period for both Lama Shenpen and Lama Rigdzin Shikpo. The two were having a stream of in-depth discussions that considerably deepened their understanding of the Buddhist tradition. Thanks to Lama Rigdzin Shikpo, Lama Shenpen gained access to Trungpa Rinpoche’s teachings and thanks to Lama Shenpen’s understanding of the Tibetan language as well as of the Buddhist practice, Lama Rigdzin Shikpo could access Khenpo Rinpoche’s teachings and interpretations without the hindrance of a language barrier. In Oxford, the couple’s spiritual investigations resulted in what appears like the confluence of the lineages of two highly respected Buddhist scholars: Khenpo Tsultrim Gyamtso Rinpoche and Trungpa Rinpoche.
In Lama Shenpen’s words: “We had an amazing period of transmission when Rigdzin Shikpo was doing his three-year retreat in Oxford and I was translating and practicing with him and it was probably the most important moment of my whole life in terms of transmissions. A very very rich time. The PhD work was laying the theoretical foundations for the actual practice: I was in constant communication with Rigdzin Shikpo trying to go through the process and acting as intermediary between him and Khenpo Rinpoche, which was a tremendously privileged situation to be in. Absolutely amazing. From the experiences I had then, I have been developing my own teachings ever since”.
While Lama Rigdzin Shikpo was still in retreat, Lama Shenpen finished her PhD, which freed a considerable amount of her time and energy. She had noticed how difficult it was to integrate new students in her Buddhist group due to their different level of understanding of the teachings and she designed a distance learning course in Buddhism with the aim of allowing students to learn at their own pace and avoiding having to start from scratch every time that a new student joined her group. Her students received the course enthusiastically and a Sangha (religious community) began to grow around her.
Once Lama Rigdzin Shikpo came out of retreat, the couple found it difficult to agree on a common trajectory. The practicalities of life further complicated the situation and limited their choices. Both Lamas were keen to continue working together and thought they might be able to do so splitting their students between beginners and advanced and entrusting the beginners to Lama Shenpen while leaving Lama Rigdzin Shikpo to teach the more advanced practitioners, but that did not work out. Lama Shenpen puts it down to her husband’s streak of impractical perfectionism and his difficulty with working within a team. The two gradually – by attrition more than by a clear-cut decision – split their activities and communities and ended up leading strongly connected but separate lives (she in North Wales, he still in Oxford). When I asked whether that put a strain on their relationship, Lama Shenpen replied: “It did put a tremendous strain on our relationship and in fact we do not live together anymore and we do not see each other very much. I regret that very much and he sort of regrets it but he does not do much about it. We meet up from time to time and we talk like in the old days and I check everything with him: if I have a new inspiration or an idea or I start teaching in a different way, I ask him. He is the only person that I can talk to like that and we always go deeper: he always helps me go deeper and he says that I inspire him in new ways of teaching and looking at things. We are very close spiritually”.
How Lama Shenpen ended up leading a Sangha and living in a hermitage in North Wales makes for another interesting story: “What happened was that His Holiness Dilgo Khyentse Rinpoche told Rigdzin Shikpo to build a stupa in Wales at the time that Trungpa Rinpoche had passed away and Khyentse Rinpoche was doing the final rites for him. Rigdzin Shikpo went to talk to him and told him that Trungpa Rinpoche had always wanted to set up a Guru Rinpoche place with a lake and an island and Rigdzin Shikpo wanted to know whether that was a good idea and Khyentse Rinpoche thought that it was a very good idea and said: find a place west of London with a lake and an island and I’ll come and bless it. We thought about it and we were not sure what he meant by “west of London” So we showed him a map of Britain and he took the map and said come tomorrow and I’ll show you [where to go]. We went the next day and he had drawn a square in North West Wales and he said find a place there and I’ll come and bless it so that is why we moved up here to Wales. His Holiness wanted us to build a stupa or a temple, which we intend to do now. We then made a big effort to get up here and got a retreat running up here but then Rigdzin Shikpo decided he did not want to come and live up here so he stayed in Oxford. So I was up here and he was down in Oxford. I have been here about ten years. […] We sold the place we had in Oxford and we bought with that money land and a building in Wales, where property is much cheaper so we got a lot of land and a big building in Wales with what we got for a small semi in Oxford”.
It did not immediately spring to my mind that a religious person pursuing a contemplative lifestyle would need to worry about money, but of course she would. Of course projects require both inspiration and resources to see the light of day and the issue of resources –money, the lack of it and how that contributes to shaping decisions – came up repeatedly in our conversation: how Lama Shenpen’s friends could support her in India but could not afford to do so at a European cost of living; how a PhD scholarship became the obvious choice for a scholar proficient in the Tibetan language who wished to undertake further studies; how selling a semidetached house in Oxford can pay for a hermitage in North Wales.
Would I move to North Wales because some big dude drew a square around it, when given a map of Great Britain? I find Lama Shenpen’s willingness to follow her calling so promptly both inspiring and challenging and I wondered aloud whether she could imagine herself leading a more mainstream life. She said she had no interest in pursuing an academic career but that – had she not encountered Buddhism – she might have become a Christian contemplative nun. While she hopes that her teachings might be helpful for her students she does feel the lure of a fully contemplative life.
When I asked Lama Shenpen what she felt her greatest achievements where, she listed three things: her PhD dissertation, for which she credited Khenpo Rinpoche’s guidance; her Discovering the Heart of Buddhism course, inspired by Lama Rigdzin Shikpo and her Sangha: an institution devoted to the living transmission of the Buddhist teachings and to supporting those on the Buddhist path.
Lama Shenpen: “This [the need for support structures] I felt from the moment I came back from the East: how supported I was by the people around me, who understood what I was doing and rejoiced in what I was doing and supported me psychologically in what I was doing and I thought how difficult it is in the West where people are not supporting you in your spiritual quest. They think that it is an irrelevance or a sideline. There is not that feeling of support and so we set up a Sangha where people are supporting each other in their practice. I feel very proud of my students sometimes. It is really fantastic. Maybe if they really can take responsibility and work together and keep good samaya (good connection with each other), maybe this will be the seed for something that will be of tremendous benefit for the future for many many people. So that is my great hope: I am very happy to think that maybe that may happen and it will be a living transmission able to transmit something that is really alive and essential and true and genuine and that the students would have picked it up in that way and would be able to pass it on. I guess if that really carries on and is getting stronger as I get older, I should feel very content when I die”.
Of her correspondence course, she said that she is very pleased with its content and its capacity to be helpful to students with different levels of understanding of Buddhism, which is – I agree – a remarkable achievement. She was less pleased with its somewhat limited distribution: student numbers were once 300 a year and have petered down to only a few dozens due to an inconsistent marketing strategy and the competition of an increasing number of other Buddhist courses. Lama Shenpen blames Karma for it: she thinks it must be due to karma that she was not able to attract and retain supporters with the skills and capacity to disseminate her message more widely. And it must be karma that shaped the course of her activities and determined the outcome.
It is an interesting question: “Whom does one inspire?”. There is a page in Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials trilogy that describes the gathering of a great army: witches, gipsy warriors, angels glowing with fierce energy and the formidable armored bears of Svalbard all responding when the ambiguous, shady but unmistakably alpha male Lord Asriel raises his standard and pitches his battle against God. Whom would I inspire? I tried it a few times, leadership. My first attempt was at school: I was eleven and I had just left my primary school and started attending the big kids’ school, which was on the other side of the village and required adult supervision to get to due to the Via Giardini, a busy thoroughfare whose fast and relentless traffic cuts the village of Casinalbo in two. It took me a few weeks to work out who were the three or four people in my class that I liked best; having ascertained that – during one morning playground break – I wrote a few invitations to join my newly minted Society for the Protection of Animals and then gave the bewildered chosen few an invitation each. Nobody responded, which I can see now is unsurprising since I failed to query their interests and desires and did not even wonder whether THEY liked me, but the observation takes none of the sting out of that failure. I have learnt a few tricks over the years and tried my hand at leadership again a few times. Not many and not that successfully either. Karma…
I asked Lama Shenpen why she has not written a book to make her teachings more accessible and she said that she hoped that her book: “There is more to dying than death” might attract more people and spark an interest in her work but again blamed insufficient publicity for its limited reach. I wondered about the market appeal of a book that has “dying” and “death” in its title but I was still cringing for having to admit that I had not read it and said nothing about it. I returned instead to the idea of a book aimed openly at popularising Lama Shenpen’s work and she said that she considered it repeatedly and intends to do it but haven’t done it yet because her Sangha work is too taxing on her time to leave her the opportunity to write such a book. I can believe that: if you enrol in her course, you can (and are encouraged to) contact her either in writing or on the telephone. I have done it once with some thorny questions and received a very detailed and insightful message that was actually helpful. I have read dozens of such emails: every week Lama Shenpen’s editor strips the messages of their personal details and distributes a student’s question and Lama Shenpen’s answer to the whole of her community. The questions are as varied as there are students: a few I can relate to, find intriguing or inspiring or comforting; the majority I put in the not applicable, show off, misguided, arcane (how many Pali words can one stuff in a three sentences email?), political (should liturgy be toned up or down at the Sangha?) categories that lead straight to my recycling bin. The answers are unflinchingly engaged, kind and thoughtful and betray a genuine attempt to be helpful. That work alone must cost hours every day.
I truly admire Lama Shenpen’s drive to engage fully: towards the end of our conversation, I asked her what she loves most and what she hates most of her practice, which is not that exciting a question and betrays some fatigue on my part. Instead of dodging the question or answering it flippantly, she pondered a while and when she started talking again her tone was deeper and her voice had the energy of the flutter of birds’ wings. What she said was alive: “I love the direct pointing out instructions, there is that sense of truth, freshness and revelation that goes with that insight so I just absolutely live for that and I trust that, I really trust that and it is what I like most to give to others. What do I hate most? A big problem with Tibetan Buddhism is overloading: it is such a rich tradition and they have so many transmissions that they can give, that it is very easy to get overloaded and to feel that you have so many pieces of practice to do that you are not doing any of them properly and that is a horrible feeling and – I think – a huge problem with Tibetan Buddhism and I try to make sure that I don’t put that onto my students and that I don’t put it onto myself, actually: that I only do what I feel is genuinely inspiring and helpful and I don’t just do a lot of stuff because you have been told that you are supposed to do all this stuff every day and keep up with it all and you end up feeling pressured by your practice so that is something that I try to protect my students from. Unsuccessfully –she added laughing – but I try”.
Finally, I asked Lama Shenpen whether I had left anything important out and she remembered not to have answered my question of how she became a Lama and decided to tell that story: “When Khempo Rimpoche was training myself and Rigdzin Shikpo, there were not really many Western Lamas. He said that Rigdzin Shikpo realization was very profound [so] we asked: “should we be called Lamas?” and he kept saying: “no, no, not necessarily”; so we did not call ourselves Lamas and then one day a student of mine went to a teaching on Mahamudra by Trungpa Rinpoche and she was told that for Mahamudra you ought to have a Lama so she came back and asked: “Are you a Lama?” because she was my student and she wanted to learn Mahamudra. So I asked Khenpo Rinpoche: “My student wants to learn Mahamudra; will I teach her? And am I a Lama?” and he said: “Yes, of course!” and that is how I became a Lama”. Was there a ceremony? – I asked – “No, just like that!” she said laughing. “If I had said no, she would have had to find someone else to teach her Mahamudra so I had to say yes, of course […]. And I have asked Khenpo Rinpoche about transmission: I have asked him: “You have given me permission to teach Mahamudra, do I have permission to give other people permission to transmit it?” And he said: “If they have enough faith in you, you can; if you have enough faith in them and you think they understand, you can”. In that sense, I feel confident that the Sangha now has the potential to be a transmission lineage”.
I felt baffled by such no-nonsense bestowing of authority. I am used to the imagery of chanting monks, colourful mandalas, robes, bells, crowded altars; even masked dancing oracles that are associated with Tibetan Buddhism and I asked whether that conforms to tradition; whether it is normal for a Lama to be made in such a way. Lama Shenpen: “It is the normal way. It is the yogic way. The way of the yogins: so you have in Buddhism your yogins, or your transmission of the actual experience in meditation and insight but you also have Buddhist institutions: monastic institutions or lineage institutions […] and they can in fact start to work at odds with each other but the tradition is that the institutions are quite secondary to the transmissions. What liberates is the transmission of the realisation: that is the liberation. The other institutions are the exoteric support for the esoteric transmissions but the esoteric transmission side has always been just from teacher to student. There is nothing else”.
|Lama Shenpen Hookham||http://www.buddhism-connect.org/|
|Lama Rigdzin Shikpo||http://www.longchenfoundation.org/aboutFounder.html|
|Khenpo Tsültrim Gyamtso Rinpoche||http://www.ktgrinpoche.org/index.html|
|Chögyam Trungpa Rinpoche||http://www.shambhala.org/teachers/chogyam-trungpa.php|
|Karma Thinley Rinpoche||http://www.karmathinleyrinpoche.com/|
|Dilgo Khyentse Rinpoche||http://shechen.org/wp/spiritual-development/teachers/dilgo-khyentse-rinpoche/|