Lama Lodo Rinpoche's Autobiography Memories of Adolescence and Coming to the Dharma
(Part two of an ongoing series.)
When I was 13, my whole life changed suddenly and completely. Soon after my mother's death, I went from a life of stability and relative luxury to the very opposite. Where before, I belonged to a close-knit family in the small village of Martam, now my family's wealth had been lost and the unity we had always known was broken. Where before, I was one of the more privileged students at Rumtek Monastery, the ancient seat of the Karma Kagyu lineage in Sikkim, now I had to work hard to pay my own way.
It is common practice for families to make generous donations to the monastery to ensure that their children receive the best care and plenty of individual attention during the long and difficult course of study that a young student goes through. In the past, my family had always made sure that I was well taken care of at Rumtek by sending donations to the monastery. The Vajramaster gave me individual instruction, always kept his eye on me, and was constantly checking in with the other tutors on my progress. I was studying reading, writing, and dancing along with all the other traditional Karma Kagyu disciplines. However, once my family support stopped everything changed. Now I studied in a group with different teachers daily. The classrooms were noisy and we did not get any individual attention. Mostly we memorized texts and practiced the rituals for upcoming events at the monastery, such as the 10 day Mahakala and 12 day Bardo rituals, etc. I would only go to classes for a couple of hours in the morning and evening, and now spent the greater part of the day helping the cookmaster in the big kitchen, cleaning the puja halls and shrines tending the vegetable garden, gathering wood from the jungle, hauling water, and doing whatever else I was asked. Such things consume your time and leave little opportunity for study and develop. It was like being in a different world from what I had known.
I wasn't a particularly good student and I didn't really like to study. However, I was always intrigued by the idea of going into retreat. Whenever I heard of someone undertaking a traditional retreat, I had the strong sense that I would someday do the same.
That the summer, I went back home to the village of Martam but the situation there had also changed. Where before, we had had servants and many employees, now we had none. My siblings were scattered and I was given over to my uncle, who gave me the job of looking after the cattle. This meant that I had to herd the cows every day into the nearby hills and spend the whole day tending them. At night, I brought them down again and slept with the calves in the cow shed. I went to my uncle's wife in the morning and evening to get a little rice and whatever else there was to eat. I was utterly miserable. Sometimes when I was out with the cattle I would hear the voices of other children playing and I would feel lonely and hopeless. I was so envious of the sound of those carefree voices and I wanted to run toward them, but couldn't leave the cows even for a moment. I desperately missed my friends and family and most of all my mother, for whom I longed with an unquenchable thirst. When I begged my father to take me back, he asked me to be patient and promised that things would change again for the better.
This is a picture of my life from about the age of 13 to 16. I was experiencing the pain and suffering that must be what an animal feels, without understanding or any sense of meaning. I had gone in a very short time from what seemed like the life of a prince to what felt like the life of a dog.
Around the time of the communist occupation of Tibet, His Holiness the Gyalwa Karmapa escaped from Tibet and chose Rumtek Monastery as his permanent residence. About two years before that, he made an interesting prediction. During a pilgrimage, His Holiness visited every monastery in Sikkim except Rumtek, which was upsetting to everyone. However, he told people not to worry because he would be coming to back to Rumtek and when he did, it would be to stay permanently. Two years later, he was forced to flee Tibet and his prediction came true. I vividly remember seeing him soon after he arrived. It was during the summer and my uncle gave me a break from the cow fields in order to take me to Rumtek to see His Holiness and receive his blessing. The little dirt road I had walked hundreds of times before seemed transformed. As we approached the monastery, everything appeared bright and shining; the air was charged with energy and I felt myself being pulled along. It was both scary and wonderful.
As we passed through the main gate, there were crowds of lamas and devotees, and my uncle and I proceeded in to the main temple and up to the second floor where His Holiness was residing. This was the third time in my life that I had seen the Karmapa. The first was when I was three and I saw him on the road from Gangtok to Bodhgaya. Everyone was paying their respects and as we approached and walked past him, I peeked out from inside my father's chuba, where I had been safely tucked away to protect me from the crowd, the Karmapa touched my head with a blessing. The second time, I was 14 when he came to Gangtok to give a Mahakala and Vajrayogini initiation, which I attended with my teacher, the vajra master of Rumtek. This time, however, was different. Although it was the same face, now it seemed to be radiant with light. I still have a vivid and clear memory of the Karmapa and even his attendants from that day. I was trembling when His Holiness asked me my name and my voice shook as I answered. He told me to work hard in my dharma studies and that I should study with the very eminent and highly respected Drubpon Tenzin Rinpoche, who was a great mahamudra master at Rumtek and had come there with the Karmapa. I was filled with happiness and suddenly knew what I had to do. My uncle wanted me to return to Martam with him but I refused, saying I would not go back to tend the cattle and that I was going to stay at Rumtek no matter what. We quarreled and he left angry. By refusing my uncle, I had cut myself off from my family. I had no idea how I was going to survive. I went to my old teacher, the vajra master, and asked him if I could work for him but he was reluctant and urged me to go home. His attendant, however, a boy a little younger than I, helped me by letting me sleep in his room and sharing food with me. Meanwhile, I began to study with Drubpon Tenzin Rinpoche, as His Holiness had advised. Every word he said enlightened me. As the days and weeks went by, my new teacher began to realize that I was alone and in trouble and he started to take care of me by giving me clothes and food. When he taught publicly, he would often focus his attention on me, joking and teasing me when I grew sleepy during the long hours of instruction, and he sometimes called me up to the front of the room to sit near him. He was never angry or unkind to me, but always encouraged me to work hard. He was a very skillful teacher and knew how to cultivate all his students. It was clear that he cared about me. I now knew I had found my real family and my true home.
Lama Lodu Rinpoche's Autobiography