Biographies: The Venerable Kyabje Namgyal Rinpoche
Leslie George Dawson was born in Toronto, Canada, in 1931 to parents of Irish-Scottish descent. After a regular Canadian schooling, he was enrolled in a Christian Seminary College with his parent's hope that he would become a Christian minister. He graduated with honors in such subjects as psychology, philosophy, social science, homilectics and higher biblical criticism. But not wishing to pursue the ministry, he moved on to further studies in Philosophy and Psychology at the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor. While there, he was drawn into politics. There followed an intense period of involvement in the Socialist Youth Movement, CCF, NDP, etc., which culminated in a visit to Russia to address a youth conference in Moscow. What he saw in Russia resulted in complete disillusionment with politics. He returned to London, at the time of the Suez crisis (1956), in a state of deep despondency.
While in London he stayed with the Huybens, a couple involved in a secret ‘esoteric’ Rosicrucian society in lineal descent from Lord Bulwer-Lytton and Baron Ernest Louis de Bunsen. They introduced him to Theosophy and the works of the Russian mystic Helena Petrovna Blavatsky. He also met, quite by chance, his first Buddhist Teacher, a simple, austere, but extremely spiritual Burmese forest-monk named Sayadaw U Thila Wunta.
He asked the venerable Burmese Sayadaw if he could become his disciple. U Thila Wunta said yes, he could become a disciple, but only if he were to make the journey to Bodh Gaya, in India, where U Thila Wunta was at that time intending to make a pilgrimage. So, after sorting out passport, visa, etc., George Dawson headed out on a wild, unplanned trip to India. He never regretted it.
Back then, Bodh Gaya was a tiny, dusty Indian village, with no facilities other than the old Burmese vihara, a mosquito infested collection of monk's cells, clustered around a dilapidated main hall. Bodh Gaya's sole claim to fame was, and still is, the site of the Lord Buddha's Great Enlightenment, commemorated by the Mahabodhi Stupa—a stupendous monument, or cenotaph, erected by Emperor Asoka some 250 years before the time of Christ, situated beside a living offshoot of the actual tree under which the Sakya-Sage, the Buddha, sat in meditation more than two millennia ago.
At the age of 27, on 28th October 1958, George Dawson received the vows of a novice monk, a Shramanera. In December of the same year he was raised to full ordination in the Buddhist Order and became a Mendicant Monk, or Bhikshu, in the Great Ordination Hall at the south gate of the great golden Shve Dagon Pagoda in Rangoon, Burma. He was given the ordination name of Anandabodhi.
Bhikkshu Anandabodhi followed up his ordination at Shve Dagon with studies in the cave of Mahapasana Guha, after which he began a program of intensive meditation practice.
He recalled that as part of his apprenticeship with Sayadaw, he had to polish the floors of the Dat Pon Zu meditation hall many, many times.
His teacher belonged to what is known as the strict Burmese Forest Tradition of reforming monks and nuns harking back to the way of spiritual practice as it was originally taught by the Buddha. They chose to spend their life in the forest, meditating, rather than reciting chants and scriptures in traditional village monasteries.
Practitioners of the forest tradition are noted for an adherence to the Pratimoksha, the old code of Vinaya discipline, but their reason for closely following Pratimoksha is so that their lives will be free from the trammels of communal monastic life, with all its ties, social demands and duties. There, in the pristine groves of nature, they sought a return to the pure, simple life of seekers of Enlightenment, as originally practiced in the era of the Buddha. Making their way by humbly begging for food, sleeping on no more than a bed of grass under forest-trees, the forest-monk (or nun) was able to dedicate his (or her) entire day to the practice of meditation. All that was needed was a set of robes, a bowl, and a klot (a mosquito net umbrella).
It was in this special meditation tradition that Bhikkshu Anandabodhi received his education as a Buddhist monk. "Keep the routine of your life simple," he was told, "and focus on the quest for direct insight above all else. Rules and ritual are not of any importance - Enlightenment (bodhi) alone is the aim of the Buddhist life."
Bhikshu Anandabodhi received a highly specialized Vidyadhara training under Sayadaw's guidance and also studied Vipassana (Skt: Vipasyana) from the famous Burmese master Mahasi Sayadaw. In Thailand he augmented Mahasi Sayadaw's Vipassana training with further instruction under Chao Kun Pra Rajasiddhimuni at Wat Mahadhat. While in Thailand, he also mastered the Wat Paknam system.
In addition he pursued further Dhamma studies in Sri Lanka, studying the Pali Suttas and the extensive meditation text known as the Visuddhimagga.
Anandabodhi was given the title Acarya, a teacher of Dharma. Invited by the English Sangha Trust to teach in England, he was brought to that country in 1961, taking residence at Alexander Road, Camden Town. While there he founded two major Buddhist communities, one of which was known as Johnstone House Contemplative Community, a Buddhist meditation retreat center in Scotland. He also supported and aided one of the first young Tibetan refugee Lama to come to the West, Chögyam Trungpa Rinpoche. He was responsible not only for assisting Trungpa in founding the first Tibetan Buddhist monastery in the West, to be known as Samye Ling, but he turned over Johnstone House to Trungpa Rinpoche as the property which became Samye Ling.
Bhikshu Anandabodhi was a special guest speaker at the Fifth International Congress of Psychotherapists in London, where he met Julian Huxley, Anna Freud and R.D.Laing, to name a few.
In 1962, he returned to Thailand on a visit to meet with one of his teachers, Pra Rajasiddhimuni, who subsequently returned to teach at the Vihara in London.
He stayed in England until the completion of his work there in 1965, after which he returned to his native land of Canada, along with two leading students, Tony Olbrecht and Barry Goulden.
In Toronto, a number of students who were interested in Buddhism spontaneously began to gather around him. In those days we used to call him "the Bhikkshu" because he was the only ordained person we knew of. Students helped fund a house in the city, an English woman with artistic talents decorated what became a meditation room, and we would all gather to receive teachings from "the Bhikkshu".
About a year after his return to Canada, students and disciples established The Dharma Centre of Canada, a study-meditation center near Kinmount, Ontario, on several hundred acres of land. For the next five years, the Venerable Anandabodhi, now a highly respected Buddhist teacher, promulgated the Dharma both in Toronto and at Kinmount.
Bhikkshu Anandabodhi quickly began to realize that many of his students required something more than traditional Buddhist education, as a preparation for meditation. His students were westerners, individuals not raised in a Buddhist environment. He saw that they needed a foundation, an intellectual ground, before tackling the strict regimen of Calm-abiding and Insight-practice that is practiced at traditional monastic centres in the East. "We were pretty raw," explains Ven. Karma Chime, one of Rinpoche's early students. "We were children of the sixties." Consequently he began to devise methods for opening his students minds and preparing them for the work ahead, focusing on such things as exercise, good diet, and an appreciation for fine art, music and philosophy. He introduced them to the study of psychology. He also encouraged them to initiate explorations of their own. One such exploration was in the field of bio-energetics, a program of body movement and exercise devised by the psychologist Dr. Alexander Lowen, similar in some ways to Hatha-yoga exercise, used to break through psychological repressions and bodily constrictions. Sometimes criticised for not being traditional Buddhist, these explorations and studies nevertheless proved invaluable to his students.
It was during this period that he also took a number of short trips to the East. On one such trip he led a delegation of Canadian Buddhists attending an important reception of the Maha-Bodhi Society in Calcutta. A newspaper cutting of the time shows the Venerable Anandabodhi, in the robes of a Bhikshu, being attended upon by various personages, including His Majesty the Chögyal of Sikkhim.
He began more and more to lead the life of a wanderer, teaching his students while travelling the world. Tickets were comparatively cheap on cargo ships, in those days, and whole groups of Dharma students would embark with him to places of great interest and adventure. While on board, he would give classes on meditation and insight. This somewhat unusually way of teaching was highly successful.
It was on one of his many trips with students through the Orient to the principal monasteries of India and the Himalayan region, that Bhikkshu Anandabodhi was recognized by His Holiness the 16th Karmapa, the supreme head of the Kagyu School of Tibetan Buddhism, as the reincarnation of the famous Nyingma Lama, Ju Mipham Namgyal Rinpoche. In front of a gathering of several hundred monks, nuns, yogis, yoginis and leading Lamas of the Kagyu school, the Gyalwa Karmapa officially enthroned Anandabodhi and bestowed on him the name and title of "Karma Tenzin Dorje Namgyal Rinpoche". His Holiness gave to Rinpoche, as a sign of this recognition, various precious items that had previously belonged to Mipham.
No longer known as Anandabodhi, Namgyal Rinpoche now began to spend the greater part of his time traveling, meeting students throughout the world, and performing work to heal the planet and its people. He became renowned as a great Lama and especially as a master of the Mahamudra meditation tradition founded in the tenth century by the Mahasiddhas Tilopa and Naropada, and handed on in Tibet by Milarepa and Gampopa.
It is said that fairly early in his life as a Buddhist monk, while undergoing a program of meditation, Rinpoche awoke to full Enlightenment. It was understood by some who knew him well that he abode fully in the Enlightened State, while functioning in a human way on earth. He was said to be one who could speak with authority about the spiritual Path. It is certainly true, those who met Namgyal Rinpoche knew that they were in the presence of an exceptional human being. There was an overwhelming sense of spiritual love and kindness and wisdom that emanated from him. As a sign of recognition, it is said that U Tilla Wunta passed his own robe on to Rinpoche. The passing of the robe is, in a sense, a symbol of the lineage being passed on. It must also be pointed out, however, that Rinpoche never capitalized on his personal charisma. He was humble and always honest to his students, playing down his own importance, while enhancing the goodness in others.
According to one student, Doug Duncan (now a highly respected Buddhist teacher), "The teacher-student relationship can often be quite hands-on and direct depending on the needs of the particular student, and sometimes students tend to roll up the mat and make a run for it when things get just a bit too uncomfortable. By travelling with the teacher, students find that they are less likely to retreat into their habitual patterns as an escape." Namgyal Rinpoche certainly had a way of seeing a student's needs and working with that.
It was not long before Namgyal Rinpoche was recognized by His Holiness the Dalai Lama, and a close friendship developed between His Holiness and Rinpoche. The Venerable Dudjom Rinpoche, the late head of the Nyingma school of Tibetan Buddhism, also declared his respect for Namgyal Rinpoche, confirming the earlier assessment by the Gyalwa Karmapa that this man born in Canada was in fact the reincarnation of the renowned Tibetan saint Mipham Namgyal.
Namgyal Rinpoche continued to teach vast numbers of students for many years, most frequently at Dharma Centres established by his students in North, Central and South America, Britain, France, Germany, the Netherlands, Japan, New Zealand and Australia, not to mention various places in Canada. His root teacher, H.H. the 16th Karmapa, passed away on the 5th of November in 1981 (the Tibetan Iron-bird Year), and has since been both reborn and re-enthroned in Tibet, as the 17th Karmapa Urgyen Thinley Dorje.
As the Tibetan tradition in America gained in popularity in the late seventies and early eighties, Rinpoche began to notice how far too many of his students were being attracted, not by a genuine desire to seek personal Enlightenment, but by a need to immerse themselves in what was an exciting, exotic foreign culture: the colourful culture of Tibet and Tibetan Buddhism. He questioned why were these young Westerners so enthralled by the outer trappings of Tibetan religion, and is this was this really a healthy situation. That enquiry led Rinpoche to take a number of fresh tactics. On more than one occasion he berated his students for being entranced by the form, while missing the essence of the teachings. "You people are fooling yourselves," he said, "copying and imitating all things Tibetan, while missing the real point of Buddhism!" For a time he dropped all visible manifestations of the Tibetan tradition from his teaching and even preferred to be known simply by his family name, George Dawson. In doing this, he wanted to cut through the artificiality and pretense which so often surrounds religion.
Namgyal Rinpoche also wanted his students to see that Dharma was universal. That is, Buddhism is not something contained in an ethnic tradition or culture. The Dharma is not something Japanese, Tibetan or Burmese any more than it can be said to be uniquely Indian. Dharma is a teaching, the teaching stemming from the Buddha, added to by innumerable enlightened Saints throughout the centuries, which has spread throughout the world in a thousand forms. Truth is simply Truth. We cloak it in so many forms, but the forms are not what Truth is. He wanted his students to grasp the heart of the Teaching, and make it their own. In this, he certainly succeeded!
Having then weaned his students of their cultural and religious myopia, Namgyal Rinpoche was able to re-introduce the Tibetan teachings to them in ways which could open their eyes to the real essence. He gradually brought back more and more of the rich tradition that we are able to inherit from Tibetan Buddhism, but now more than ever from a perspective that his students could genuinely use in the personal transformation their lives.
As Doug Duncan says, "Awakening isn't about finding a better culture or religion. In fact, it isn't even about meditation. It's about waking up; its about becoming free from being subject to suffering. It's about learning to look at our experience directly, with honesty and integrity. In the final analysis, it's about freedom, and anything that gets in the way of that goal is counter-productive, however great its potential."
Rinpoche displayed an unique ability to encompass and bridge the traditional methods of old-world Buddhism and modern Western science. As a Westerner Namgyal Rinpoche was able to transmit the path of Enlightenment in universal terms according to people's own interests and proclivities. Like his root teacher, the great Karmapa, he transcended sectarian boundaries, opened the teaching in a manner accessible for Westerners, and became a leading beacon for the Dharma in the world.
There were many occasions when Rinpoche startled his students by doing something quite unusual. At one time he and some students were traversing the side of a mountain when a landslide began. The area they were skirting consisted of loose gravel, stones and broken rock. Suddenly the ground around them began to tremble, and large boulders started to give way. In seconds it became obvious that the small group would be engulfed, as the landslide crashed towards them from above. Rinpoche immediately told his disciples to recite a specific mantra well known to them, and while thrusting his hand up in a sudden pointing gesture, it was as if he commanded the sliding mountain to stop its dangerous assault. With amazement and shock the students witnessed the falling rubble part around them, as the landslide divided into two separate streams, one to the left, one to the right, just barely sparing their lives.
Some accounts tell of deathly-ill victims of disease coming to Rinpoche and undergoing complete remission. Many students have reported occasions when a severe illness apparently was cured thanks to Namgyal Rinpoche's attention. The event I remember most, however, was when a dying friend, Sudharma, went to Rinpoche for help and stayed to do a three week intensive retreat. He emerged from that retreat transformed. Rinpoche cured him, not of dying, but of his fear of death. Sudharma wrote to me afterwards, "The healthiest, most evolved individual, most appropriate and practical, is the mystic. That is the one who sees through the materiality of the universe into its divinity. For such a one, the sun of reality burns away the 'netted undergrowth', the frozen defensive self melts and the 'I', empty and serene, stands radiantly at One. This is our birthright, our natural state to be experienced, not some ideology." Guiding people to their natural birthright might well be described as what Rinpoche spent his life doing.
A true knower of the hearts of men, a living saint to whom is attributed a host of miracles, but most of all a truly loving human being, the great Namgyal Rinpoche has inspired hundreds of dedicated students. His generosity and kindness flowed forth without ever wearing him down, as he served all who came to him for guidance, comfort and encouragement on the Spiritual Path. Brutally fierce with some, his actions were nevertheless always suited to the requirements of those with whom he dealt. With me he was excessively kind, gentle and patient. More than ever, as the years pass by, in reflecting on what a great being he truly was, I am reminded of the qualities and attributes of the Buddha himself.
Rinpoche gradually trained his most senior students to become meditation teachers in their own right. His longest standing disciple, Sonam Gyatso, and his attendant Terry, both of whom practically spent their whole lives in close proximity to Rinpoche, need special mention. Other senior students of Namgyal Rinpoche include Karma Chime Wangmo, Cecilie Kwiat, Doug Duncan, Tarchin Hearn, Sherab Lodro (Paul Curtis), Lama Lodro (Jeff Olson), Bonni Ross, and Karma Lekshe Yondu, who today are responsible for perpetuating Namgyal Rinpoche's lineage.
Our most beloved teacher passed away in Switzerland, October 22, 2003, having giving his final instruction to his many students the world over.
For more information about Namgyal Rinpoche please visit the website of the Dharma Centre of Canada.
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