At the Penang Caves
This is the tenth in a series of reminiscences by Ven. Lama Lodu Rinpoche
Finally arriving at the Pangang caves in the foothills of Himalchal Pradesh, things were not quite what I had expected. I had been sent to serve as retreat master to a group of monks practicing under the sponsorship of a local merchant, Wongchuk Gendag, who had given these caves on his property to the Karmapa. But it had been a bad year for crops and the merchant had suffered heavy losses so he could no longer continue his financial support of the seven monks in residence. He had told them they could stay as long as they wanted but they would be on their own for food and other necessities.
On my arrival I found not the stable conditions of traditional retreat, but instead a very unsettled situation. The four monks who remained—three had already left—were constantly coming and going trying to find support for their practice. They would go to the nearby town for a period of weeks or months to beg for food and money and then would come back and spend a few months at Pangang. They were never all there together for any length of time. Luckily for me Wongchuk Jendag honored his commitment to the Karmapa and continued to sponsor me as long as I was at Pangang.
It happened that one of the great wandering yogis of that time, Lama Lamchog, was in residence at Pangang at that time. When he learned that I was of his lineage and had been sent by Kalu Rinpoche and the Karmapa, he welcomed me warmly and invited me to take part in the Chenrezig Korwa-dongtruk which he was practicing intensively. For a whole month we lived and practiced side by side in his small cave and I had the amazing chance to observe this legendary meditator. The level and intensity of his practice was remarkable but what impressed me most was that even in sleep he chanted continually without making a single mistake. I never heard him speak of anything but spiritual matters. He truly lived and breathed dharma 24 hours a day.
Lama Lamchog told me he had only studied one text in his life—Shantideva’s Bodhisattva Way of Life—and I could see he knew every word of it. People loved to take care of him but he never stayed in one place for more than a few months. The night we finished the Chenrezig Korwa-dongtruk practice, he said he would have to be moving on soon. Next morning when I woke, I found he had left without a trace.
I stayed on in the cave and began to practice the Rinchen-trengwa Chod by myself. I started in summer and recall seeing shepherds with their herds of thousands of sheep in the alpine meadows. Sometimes they would bring me fresh milk. Occasionally one of the monks would come with a question but otherwise I saw no outsiders and had few interruptions. Autumn came and went and the shepherds with their flocks disappeared from the mountainsides. Once during a particularly bad winter storm the snow completely covered the entrance to my cave, closing me in. I had a little food and wood but couldn’t go out to get water, so I boiled chunks of snow to make tea. Somehow I knew I’d be alright and after three or four days the snow began to melt and my sponsor appeared with fresh supplies: wood, rice, butter, tsampa, meat, and yoghurt. He was happy to see that I hadn’t been afraid and said he had tried many times to get through but the snow was too deep. He stayed and practiced with me awhile, then went home.
When spring came, the abbot of a Ngingma monastery, Khenpo Tubten, moved into one of the caves and not long after that, another abbot, Khenpo Khedrub, renowned for his mastery of Buddhist philosophy and debating skills, also came. Khenpo Khedrub had been at Rumtek where he taught philosophy to H.E. Tai Situpa Rinpoche, H.E. Gyeltsap Rinpoche, H. E. Jamgon Rinpoche, and H.E. Shamarpa Rinpoche. Also, when I was studying under Dupen Tendzin Rinpoche, Khenpo Khedrub was receiving Mahamudra transmission from Tendzin Rinpoche, so we knew each other pretty well and I invited him to stay with me in my cave.
Khenpo Khedrub requested from Khenpo Tubten to be instructed in Gyu Sang-wa Nyingpo (Heart Secret of Tantra), a condensed and esoteric Vajrayana practice. When Khenpo Tubten agreed, Khenpo Khedrub invited me to take part, saying this was an opportunity I must not miss. I said I would join them, even though I didn’t know this teacher, and next day preliminary preparations began with a ganachakra feast offering. After the offering, the two khenpos began to talk and as I listened I learned that Khenpo Tubten had had some minor disagreements with H. H. Dilgo Khyentse Rinpoche. On hearing this, I felt hesitant to continue with the instruction since His Holiness Khyentse Rinpoche was one of my root gurus and I had received the Ngingma teachings from him. Next day I told Khenpo Khedrub I was very sorry but as much as I respected Khenpo Tubten, I didn’t feel I could take part in these instructions. Each day when my room-mate came back to the cave after the teachings, he would take some time to tell me how foolish I was to be missing this once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. I just kept quiet and let him scold me—every night for more than a month!
Soon after the teaching ended, Khenpo Khedrub received a letter from the Karmapa asking him to take over the responsibilities of a nearby monastery. After reading the letter, he seemed nervous and uncomfortable around me. He couldn’t figure out how the Karmapa had found him. Khenpo Khedrub was a renowned scholar and greatly sought-after for positions of high status and responsibility, but he would much rather travel about the countryside, living the completely humble and simple life of a wandering yogi. In order to do this, he took pains to make sure no one knew his whereabouts and I think he suspected me of telling the Karmapa he was there in Pangang. Next morning when I awoke in the cave, Khenpo Khedrub had taken off.
It wasn’t until many years later in Bodhgaya that I saw him again. He was on his way to Nepal to buy 1000 Buddha statues to take to Kham in eastern Tibet. I heard that he succeeded in getting the statues to his homeland and that soon afterward he went into retreat there in a cave. He told his brother not to disturb him but after seven days, the brother felt he must need food so he went to the cave and found Khenpo Khedrub dead. The body had shrunk down to a very small size and appeared to be still shrinking but at the moment the brother touched it, it stopped. It is believed that if he had not touched it, the body would have completely disappeared.
After Khenpo Khedrub’s departure, I stayed on at the caves another two years. As before, the monks came and went, doing their study and practice while trying to support themselves. Due to the lack of financial stability, their progress was slow and uneven. I decided I was not doing much good here, so I told my sponsor I was going to leave. He said that nowadays more and more Tibetans were going into business instead of monasteries, that even monks were more interested in worldly education or making money than in traditional dharma studies, so that my position was very special and I should stay on at the caves and continue my practice. He said he’d support me for as long as I would stay. I thanked him and said that I’d go see my teachers Kalu Rinpoche and the Karmapa and then return to Pangang. But in my heart I knew I would probably never see this kind benefactor again, and it was true: fate had other plans for me.
Lama Lodu Rinpoche's Autobiography