Monday, November 10, 2014

One at a Time

Venerable Lobsang Khando

Venerable Lobsang Khando after performing a Medicine Buddha puja at the Bhwasa Charity Medical Center, Nepal
Life is a mystery to us and if we examine our purpose, sometimes we are lucky enough to see clearly what our path is. Even luckier are those who get the opportunity to follow the path they have seen. I never believed in luck, but as you will see from my story, maybe I should change my mind.

When I was a little girl my family consisted of brothers, one sister and parents. It was pretty normal for the most part. My favorite color was red; even my rain boots and lunch box were red or reddish. Houses I drew and painted were yellow and red. I loved chanting rhymes as most children do but I would do it repeatedly as it made me feel better somehow. My favorite question was, “Why?” Okay, none of this is unusual. But when you piece it together, something of my past life karma was there, I think, speaking to me right from the start!

In my home there was much suffering; an abusive stepfather made my life very difficult indeed. Yet through this painful experience I was to find a depth of compassion that is now unshakable. Through my own pain and terror, I came to understand how others might feel in a similar situation. I knew why they would ask “Why me?” They were just like me! I used my own experiences to understand the pain and suffering of others, and my experiences spurred me on to help others out of their pain. I also stored up a great determination to know the truth, as lies were all I heard when I was young. It might seem strange but I am grateful to my stepfather for these teachings.

My little sister was my stepfather’s own child. She was a sweet pretty little thing with a heart filled with love and devotion for others. The contrast between him and her was stark, and a constant reminder that not everyone was like he was; some people did know kindness and compassion. I did not remain angry or hateful toward my stepfather, or later toward my brother who followed in his footsteps. I look on them now with tears of great and deep sorrow for their suffering. If I was in pain in this life, how much greater was their pain? They must be in agony! Oh how horrible for them. Today it still moves me deeply when I express my sadness for how their lives have been and continue to be.

Venerable performs a Medicine Buddha puja (prayer)
The only relief I had was to pray. I was lucky. My mother was deeply religious and prayer was her way. She prayed about everything! When I was growing up, I found this very unfashionable and in fact it would annoy me a great deal as a teenager. But most teenagers get annoyed easily so that isn’t saying much.

In spite of my intolerance, I did learn from her good example. There was something missing however. It seemed to me that she prayed but did little to change her world. Was it not required that we do both if we can? Maybe she felt she couldn't do anything; maybe she felt helpless to change things around her. As a child I was determined not to be like this. I decided that if there was a problem, I would pray, but I would always take action. This was the complete way.

In those days I knew nothing of Buddhism or any religion other than that of my mother. I tried to be like her yet never felt it was the truth for me. I saw her friends—the missionaries and the ministers—and I thought I wanted to be a nun or a missionary. I was told this wasn’t possible and I should stop being silly. I was discouraged every time I mentioned it, yet in my heart the flame never died, it only slept.

Although I was deeply involved in my mother’s religion I could not see it the way she did. It never spoke to me as the truth. While I respect my mother’s faith, it just wasn't for me; I was different and I wanted to find out why.

I am a truth seeker. I love logical thought and things that make sense. When the world is in chaos around me, I seek something that will make it all balance out somehow. My early childhood wasn’t perfect but for me it was my first great teaching! It taught me that there is more than one way to see things and it taught me that we all want happiness.

One of the oldest people in the village where
Bhwasa Charity Medical Centre is built
I tried to please my family by marrying and having children. This was what you did to be accepted in society. My children are still precious to me, however, married life was horrible and I was not well suited to it at all! And it must be said that I wasn't terribly good at picking husbands either. One of them was actually still married to his wife when he married me. Yep, totally true, I wasn't a great judge of character when it came to husbands. When I decided that marriage simply wasn't my thing, it was probably the best idea I’d had yet!

In the 1990s I was a struggling single mother, with all the joy and problems that entails. My youngest son however was having a very difficult time. His father was abusing him and he was only four years old. It took a further two years before I had enough money to hire a lawyer in order to gain full custody of my little one. In the meantime the damage to him was being done by his own father and his father’s girlfriend. I will never forget his screams when I was forced to take him back to his father on access visits. It ripped my heart and it was as if my own childhood was repeating itself! I felt helpless. Once the court battle was over and I had won my case, I became very ill. My son would wake in a sweat, screaming that fire-eating dragons were chasing him and that they had the head of his father. For him school was a nightmare also, and he was not sleeping or eating well. The doctors said he was traumatized and needed medication. They also suggested I needed medication as I had to continue working full time and manage living somehow. I said “No way!” There had to be another way. I would not allow them to drug my child, or me. Yes, I did pray for answers and one afternoon I met up with a friend and explained what was happening. (I wish I remember his name or still had his email address as I would love to tell him my story. He would be happy how it ended I think.) He said, “Why don’t you try going to the monastery and learning meditation. It might help you and the boy.”

I had heard of meditation by then, but thought only Hindus did that kind of thing. I knew nothing about it, but was willing to try anything to help my child. His life was in danger and so was mine. We were both so stressed that something had to give. A solution had to be found and quickly.

Wind blows the prayer flags at the ground breaking
It was 1995 when we first went to Sakya Monastery in Seattle, Washington. As I walked in the front door, the scent of sandalwood assaulted my senses. I took my shoes off—I didn't know you did this, I just saw the shoes by the door and did the same —and walked inside. The colors of the pictures on the walls made my heart sing. How utterly beautiful! The strong images were soothing and protective somehow. I had no names then for any of them but I was soon to find out that the image I first saw was Chenrezig, the bodhisattva of compassion. I now have a thank of Chenrezig and he travels with me wherever I go! Then there was Tara, a beautiful young woman, who was the embodiment of all the strength and kindness of the female heart. She was not weak but a warrior with her flaming sword. All the images spoke to me like an old family I had long forgotten. I felt as if I were coming home.
The months passed as we both attended teachings at Sakya. We only were able to go on Sundays (we lived an hour away at the time and I had limited money for petrol) but slowly a change happened to my son and me. He was sleeping and eating better, and he was calmer and had found some of his playful energy again. I was able to spend more time with him, quietly and calmly enjoying his company. One night he sang himself to sleep, something he used to do as a baby. I thought, “My little boy is back”. I was so happy.

Don’t think it was a magic cure. Don't think we never had bad days or struggled. We still had bad days but there were far fewer of them. The difference now was we had the tools we needed to make it through the bad days when they came!

I didn't know how to repay the kindness of the Sakya Monastery, and I truly wished to do so. I donated, but that didn't seem to be enough. They were giving refuge at the monastery and I eagerly said I would take refuge. During the refuge ceremony I was given the name of Dendzin Chodon, Dharma Lamp or Light to the Path. I promised then I would find a way, no matter how long it took, to repay the kindness shown to me. Back then it was my practice to recite the refuge prayers. Even now, as part of my vows, the refuge prayers are part of my daily practice, and, most important, they remind me of my promise to repay the kindness.

Construction of Bhwasa Charity Medical Centre in a small village in Nepal started in June this year
The wish to devote my life to others was still very much alive in me, yet I had other promises to keep. I must raise my children, the youngest of whom was still at home. So I studied the Buddhadharma. I began by keeping lay person’s vows and practicing the best I could. We moved to Scotland in 2000 and here life began its real change.

First I found there was no monastery near where I lived. The closest one, Samye Ling in Dumfrees, didn't have courses you could take from home. As I was working again, it wasn't possible for me to travel there for courses and, anyway, their they were expensive. I had to find another way. Then I found that Jamyang Monastery in London had on-line classes. This was wonderful news and I started what would be twelve years study with them. First I took the Four Noble Truths course for two years followed by a ten-year study of the Lam Rim. At the same time I was taking courses from the Institute Lama Tsongkhapa in Pamona, Italy. In 2008, I travelled to Nottingham to hear His Holiness the 14th Dalai Lama teach on Vajrasattva and take initiation from him.

While in Nottingham, I picked up a brochure on young monks in Sera Jey Monastery in South India. I placed the information in my bag and forgot about it for a few months. The leaflet managed to keep making its way to the top of the pile of notes on my desk. It seemed to be refusing to be forgotten. On checking my budget, I found that I could sponsor one monk. I got in touch with Valarie Baily who I am honored to say is now my dearest friend. She gave me information on one monk to sponsor. I contacted his teacher Venerable Ngawang Palden. This simple act of generosity was to change my life in an astounding way. Palden and I became very good friends and soon I was sponsoring several monks. But this wasn’t enough. Just as prayer alone for me will not do, I had to be more involved. I decided to go to India.

I had never travelled so far alone before and it was a little scary. But I felt there was someone with me all along the journey. I was also comforted by the fact that I was being met by monks at the other end and would not then be among strangers. On arrival in India at 2:00 in the morning, I was met by kata scarves of welcome. I had seen Palden’s photo before but when I looked at him and saw his eyes for the first time, it was as if I had known him for years and it was like old friends coming back to each other. It was then I started thinking of him as my younger brother.

After a long drive to Mysore, I was told that the monastery was at Bylakuppe, the Tibetan settlement, and would be a further hour or so away. As the sights and sounds of India assaulted my senses, I felt as if I were dreaming, but I think it was mostly jet lag at that point. Over the next few weeks I met with the boys and we all became good friends. I told Palden of my dream of being a nun and of thinking it would not come true so I was practicing as a lay person. I was introduced to their Geshe who helped me with my homework. Yes, I took my homework with me to India! I am so utterly serious!

Walls are completed and roof is coming
After returning from India, I planned at the next opportunity to ask at Jamyang Monastery in London if I could take novice vows. I felt I had to try. I had seen the monastery. I had seen the lives of the monks. My children were grown and that part of my life was over. I was happy studying the dharma.

I was happy with what I knew of the dharma and with the teachers I had. It was time I took the next step. There was a retreat at Jamyang so I attended. Keeping the vows was easy as I had taken Mahayana precepts many times. I asked to speak to Geshe la. When I told him of my adventures in India, he was very patient and listened carefully. Then I asked him. He thought for a second and then said I should “try” to be at the monastery first to see if I liked it. Try? No, for me there was no “trying”. I wasn't wealthy and didn't have a great deal of savings. I had nothing but my little house and my job. There wasn't even much to live on from month to month. At just over fifty years old I was well aware that my life was beginning to wind down. I was not young and getting a job again after “trying” would be very difficult if not impossible. There had to be another way.

It’s a good thing that I am so determined otherwise this would have ended my journey. I would have given up. As you can see from my story I am definitely not the sort of person who gives up! My heart was broken as I traveled home. Where could I turn? Who would understand how I felt about this and how serious it was for me? I had held this dream for so long, and now to have it finally crushed was wholly unacceptable. I cried when I got home. It was as if a part of my true heart was dying and I could do nothing to fix it. I wrote to Palden telling him of what happened, looking mainly for solace. I told him he was so lucky that his monastic life and choices were easier than mine. I didn’t ask him to help me, in fact I said that I didn't know what to do but I would find a way somehow. He said for me not to worry. Knowing him better now—what this meant was that he was working on an answer and I should be patient—but I didn't know that then.

After writing to him, I searched for a new dharma book. Reading about the dharma always cheered me up. I found a book on Guru Rinpoche. I loved his little moustache; it always makes me laugh to see it. I’m not sure why, but I always smile when I see an image of him. The book is called The White Lotus. I read the words in this small book and was deeply moved. This teacher wrote with such loving devotion, the same devotion I felt for others, and the book spoke to my very core. It gave me courage and I felt loved from his words. It was amazing. I highly recommend it to all my friends. I was reading the book on the way to work and noticed a truck passing my bus, with the letters V O W on its side. I laughed; someone in the universe was making a joke.

A few days later Palden wrote to me asking me if I could come to India or Nepal later in the year. I explained to him that Nepal was far too expensive for me and I had to have a good reason for making any journey as it took months to save up to travel. I asked him why he wanted me to come. He said that after trying Nyingma monastery and other possibilities, his teacher Lobsang Tenzin Rinpoche had agreed to give me my vows, but I had to come to Nepal. Could I get a month away from work to come? What??? I said I would have to check. I didn’t think that there was any way my boss would let me off for a month. When I told her what happened she rejoiced with me and said, yes of course I could go.

After taking vows at Kopan Monastery in
Kathmandu, Nepal
On the 17th March 2013, I took my full vows, not novice vows but full vows as a Buddhist nun. It was amazing. I was so nervous and knew very little Tibetan. Palden helped translate and I managed. I knew what I was saying anyway, because, having read the vows of fully ordained nuns, I knew what I was promising to do. Not knowing Tibetan didn't matter. What did matter was that I was on my way to being what I already knew I was. I was beaming like a new bride when I stepped outside the monastery. A nun who was giving cards asked me what I was going to do next. Next? I had never thought I would really be able to take my vows, so next things hadn't come into the equation. But it was a good question.

Palden took me then to his village. The people there are sweet and kind. They are poor but have good lives. The biggest difficulty is getting medical care. The hospital is five hours away in Kathmandu. Many of the people in the village have little money so paying a private hospital is out of the question for most of them. Palden didn’t ask me for help directly but said it was a “problem.” He said nothing else. He knew me very well by then and I was accepted as his older sister by his father, family, and other relatives. On my way home to the UK, dressed in my robes, I wondered if anyone would think I was different. And wondering what I would do next was always on my mind.

For three months I continued to work and pray. I was looking for answers as to where I should go with my life. I could keep working but did I really want to? There was not much time for practice and prayer and there was no time to really help others, although my job at the NHS was helping others indirectly. It was like my feelings about donating at Sakya Monastery. I wanted more; I wanted to be involved. I wanted to be there to hold hands when people were scared; I wanted to be there to soothe fevers when people were sick. This was in my heart from the beginning but how could I achieve this? It is said in the Bodhisattva practice that even having such a wish is great merit, but I was certain there was a way that I could do more than wish.

Bhwasa Charity Medical Centre in the mist
I checked to see if I could retire from the NHS. I found that I could retire early as I was on an older type of contract. So this was a “yes,” however I didn't act upon it immediately. What money did I have to help others? The only things I had were my car and my house. The car was paid off, the house would be in five years. And maybe it would take a year or more to sell. I discussed this idly with my good friend who lived next door. Her daughter then said the most amazing thing, “I will buy your house.” What? I would not even have to market my house, and it would be sold in months rather than years. And no real estate agent! Meanwhile the numbers were coming in for my retirement. As predicted, working fourteen years for the NHS would give me a £2,000 per year retirement wage. Yes, per year! No surprise there. I would have to make the lump sum payment last somehow.

I wrote to Palden, promising nothing, and asked how much a hospital would cost. He gave me the figures and it fit in with my budget. I then checked with immigration and it would be difficult but I could manage for a little while. So nine months after I took my vows, I had sold everything I owned, quit my job, retired, and was flying back to Nepal! We would build a small multipurpose building for prayer practice, medical treatment, community education, and medicines supply. We are calling it Bhwasa Charity Medical Centre.

A donation made in Scotland by my dear friend Senga
in front of my old house
Since that time I have ridden in old rickety buses taking five hours to get to the village. I have fallen off the motorcycle into the river while going to the village. I have managed to shop and get good discounts on things from the locals. The taxi drivers know I will ask for a fair price and insist I get it, but I am still fair—some things never change. I have met some other Buddhist nuns and have had a few good laughs. I attended Ka-Nying Monastery and took Nepali classes for eight weeks and can now bargain better than ever! Look out Kathmandu! I managed to get a nice apartment in Bhoudha near the stupa for a great price from my Nepali teacher’s family. I am never out of money but am poor. I am never out of new friends or old ones who look after me—they just appear out of nowhere when they are needed. Merit is gained in the service of others in an unattached way. I truly believe this! I am SO LUCKY!

It is now 13 August 2014 and the hospital is nearly complete. We will have two people from the village trained for free as medical emergency staff. This is due to the kindness of the Senchem Clinic that is run by one of the Rinpoches in Bhoudha. This free training has been given so that people living in the village can help themselves in times of need.

My own visa problem remains so I must leave this country I love and her people to let them manage on their own. Perhaps this is just karma working—theirs and mine. I don’t know. It is best that I be allowed to be what I am—a Buddhist nun seeking enlightenment for the sake of others. For that I need teaching and training. So the next stop for me is Dharmasala for a bit of nun training and then hopefully I will begin classes at the Tibetan Archives the following year. I am also to attend the wedding of my youngest son, who served in Afghanistan and Iraq twice. He is still a happy and content young man, and still believes that a good deed and a good heart are the best things to have in life.

Some of the youngest children in the village
I remember during a meditation just after taking my vows that I saw many faces—old people, young people, babies of all colors and all nationalities. His Holiness the 14th Dalai Lama was standing by my side looking at the sunset and the great sparkling ocean beyond. As I looked I could see the faces more clearly. They all were holding their hands up to me—a little Buddhist nun— begging and crying, asking me for help. It still makes me cry when I think of it and I can’t tell the story without tears because it is so real, as if it really happened. In the meditation, I turned to His Holiness and asked, “How can I help so many? I am only one Buddhist nun.” He took my hand and said “One at a time, Khando, one at a time.”

It is said when you help one person, you help the world, as their life will touch the lives of many others for lifetimes to come. Never think that you are too small to make a change. Never think that your practice is too weak, or that you have nothing to offer. I can tell you from personal experience that a single kind word, holding someone’s hand, or drying their tears will make a great difference to them. They will never forget you. To everyone who did this for me over the years, I offer my thanks.
It is amazing when you think of what it took to bring Palden and myself together. Thousands of miles away and more than thirty years between us. It is truly miraculous and wonderful. I am a lucky girl, lucky to have survived, lucky to have seen where I needed to go, lucky I was born with an inner determination that never let me give up. I hope my story inspires you. If you follow your path gently, great things can occur. My story isn’t finished yet, and neither is yours!

You can read more about the medical clinic started by Venerable Lobsang Khandro here.

Tzunma Lobsang Khando (Kathryn McIntosh)

Tzunma Lobsang Khando (Miss Kathryn McIntosh) was born in the USA and lived there most of her life. In 2000, she moved to Scotland and attained citizenship some years later.

It was in Seattle where she was introduced to Buddhism at Sakya Monastery. While at Sakya Monastery she took initiation in Green Tara, White Tara and Chenrezig practice. She has studied Buddhist philosophy and practice for over twenty years. She studied for ten years with Geshe Tashi Tsering at Jamyang Monastery in London, taking training in the Four Noble Truths, and the Lam Rim Chenmo. In 2008, she took Vajrasattva initiation with his Holiness the 14th Dalai Lama in Nottingham, England.

After keeping lay vows for nearly fifteen years she took her ordination at Kopan Monastery in Kathmandu, Nepal on the 17th of March 2013. Khando practices within the Gelugpa lineage, and her Rinpoche hails from Sera Jey Monastic University in Bylakuppe, South India. While in India she taught English conversation to the monks there in 2010.

She has taught meditation classes from her home in Scotland since 2009, and often runs workshops teaching Buddha dharma in the local area of Morayshire, Scotland.

Khando travels quite often and has visited India and Nepal many times. Bodhisattva practice and vows are very important to her. They are the soul of her work with others.

“The practice of generosity is the first and most important practice we can do. It encompasses all the other perfections. When we practice generosity of material and non-material types and apply good ethics, moral conduct, wisdom, concentration and patience we are practicing in a way that benefits all sentient beings in uncountable ways. The benefit is unmeasurable. It is with joy that I practice the Bodhisattva Way. Even when difficulties arise, as they often do, I try to be happy as this is the ending of negative karmic actions in this life leaving room only for happiness. This is amazing and so wonderful!”

In 2014 after nearly a year in Nepal Khando had to return to Scotland. She now is taking training at Thosamling Nunnery in Dharmashala, India and is planning to return to Scotland in the summer of 2015 in order to continue with teachings.

1 comment:

  1. Thank you for sharing your inspirational story. Your kindness is woven throughout.