This is the 15th in a series of reminiscences by Ven. Lama Lodu Rinpoche
I travelled directly from Zurich, the last stop on the Karmapa’s amazing bus tour of Europe, to Stockholm where I had been appointed by His Holiness to serve as resident lama to that city’s first dharma center.
I was accompanied by an aristocratic woman—a member of the Swedish royal family—and her older Russian husband. She was to be host, guide and helper to me in my new foreign home. Right away she rented me an apartment and within a few weeks had bought a house that was to become our center, located in a pleasant suburb and perfectly suited to our needs. We set up a shrine room and study hall on the first floor and I was given the second floor to live in.
I was conducting morning and evening pujas every day but communication was a growing problem. Occasionally a translator would come, allowing me to give formal teachings, but most of the time I had to rely on my few words of English and Swedish, so I decided to begin to teach Tibetan classes on weekends to provide a foundation for study and meditation. Also, my host quickly enrolled me in Swedish language classes and found an English tutor who came to me every weekday for intensive, all-day study. He was a professional teacher and had a studio where we would sometimes video our sessions, so I could watch and listen to myself as well.
Occasionally there was time left over for me to begin to learn the bus and subway routes so I could explore Stockholm a little on my own. But my host felt I needed to learn to drive and she asked a young Swedish monk who was living at the center to teach me. It didn’t take me long to put quite a few dents in the car that had been provided and one day—the first time I ever went out driving by myself—I went crashing through a fence into an old man’s garden. Not able to explain myself to the man and frightened of being arrested for driving without a license, I ran home and told my students what had happened. They immediately went to the scene of the crime, repaired the fence and set things right so the old man didn’t call the police or charge us for the damages. The industriousness of my students and the kindness of the man probably spared me from the experience of a Swedish jail.
I had been experiencing the distractions and difficulties of living the life of a Buddhist monk in the West for some time now, so I wrote a letter to Kalu Rinpoche telling him I thought it would be best for me to give up my monastic vows. It seemed to me to be dishonest to wear the robes of a monk when I was living a more worldly life than I had ever imagined back in India. I also knew that in this setting, it was unlikely I would be able to keep my vows much longer and I did not want to pretend to be something that I was not.
Kalu Rinpoche wrote back telling me there are two methods for giving back one’s vows; the first and best is to relinquish the vows to the person who had originally bestowed them. If the original person was not available, they could also be ceremonially given back to another qualified monk. However, if you were alone, as I was, the second method was to give back your vows in front of an image of the Buddha. Kalu Rinpoche said he did not want me to marry or become a householder and that even if I were to relinquish my vows I could not divorce myself from my responsibilities as a lama. I could see that he did not want to tell me outright that I should keep my vows, but he let me know clearly that I must take my duties as spiritual teacher very seriously.
Not too many months before, I had talked with His Holiness the Karmapa on this same subject, telling him that I thought it would be better for me to return to a monastery in India, where distractions were few and the environment was structured to support the monastic life. He had said to me at the time that that since many obstacles had been overcome to bring me to the West, it was now my duty to stay here and teach. So both my gurus wanted me to remain in this worldly setting, regardless of the difficulties it might present to me as a monk.
After much thought, I decided to give up my monastic vows and did so in front of the altar in the shrine room I had consecrated not long before. Life continued much as it had: morning and evening pujas, language studies, meeting with students, learning more about life in the West. The center was doing well and the sangha seemed happy with me as their teacher, so I was content.
A few months later Kalu Rinpoche sent me a message asking me to come to Paris where he was teaching. He told me to bring all my belongings with me, so I knew he planned to relieve me of my duties in Stockholm. A group of about 20 of my Swedish students asked if they could go with me to Paris where they hoped to convince Kalu Rinpoche to let me keep my position.
Kalu Rinpoche said he thought it would be better to separate me from the distractions I was facing in Stockholm and wanted to send me to the United States. Once he explained this to my students and told them he planned to send an older, more experienced teacher to take my place in Stockholm, they accepted his decision but still thought I should ask one more time to be allowed to stay. I did not want to question my beloved teacher and felt certain that he knew what was best for me. So I stayed in Paris for another week or so and prepared for what was to be the longest and most important journey of my teaching life—across the Atlantic Ocean and to the US city of New York.
Lama Lodu Rinpoche's Autobiography