The Buddha from Brooklyn -- hog-tied
People seem to remember little about September 24, 1988, but for the blaring of horns, the crashing of cymbals, the endless pounding of drums. The Dharma room was hot and crowded. Jetsunma Ahkon Lhamo's enthronement was a long and serious affair. So serious that when Gyatrul Rinpoche tried to break the heavy mood by throwing a pillow at a newspaper reporter covering the event, everyone followed Penor Rinpoche's example and refused to laugh. The newly ordained were feeling quite strange in their huge yellow robes and emotionally drained. As they watched from the floor of the Dharma room, the exotic grandeur of the day was overpowered by exhaustion. "We all felt rearranged," said Alana, "and afterward it was like remembering a dream."
Several of the newly ordained, along with a handful of sangha members, had been up all night preparing the temple, cleaning, setting up buffet tables, arranging the trays of food for the tsog, or offering. Still others had labored over a last-minute painting of Jetsunma's new throne--the sangha's gift to their lama in honor of her enthronement. Jetsunma herself had been up most of the night, too, worried that she wouldn't be able to blow a conch shell horn properly--for the next day's ceremony--and practicing until her lips were swollen.
A crown had been brought from India for Jetsunma--it was large and heavy, made of copper and painted. At the beginning of the ceremony, a few monks from Penor Rinpoche's retinue tried to tie the crown on Jetsunma's head, but it wouldn't sit right on top of her thick mane, and the ties kept getting caught in her hair. She smiled good-naturedly, and a bit nervously. Penor Rinpoche sensed her embarrassment and said, "We don't usually have to put crowns on hair like that." A TV camera trained on her face belonging to one of Ani Aileen's colleagues from NBC, and others from local TV stations crowded together off to the side. The New York Times ran an article the next day. The Washington Post would later run a photograph of Jetsunma under her awkward crown.
A multicolored string was stretched between Jetsunma's throne and Penor Rinpoche's to signify the connection between them. Elaborate offerings were described by the Tibetan, and Jetsunma was instructed to visualize them. The sangha sat silently with katas, and at the end of Jetsunma's visualization they were instructed to approach her, one by one, and drop their white scarves at the base of her throne. At almost all other Tibetan Buddhist ceremonies, a student hands one of these white scarves to a lama and the lama gives it back, putting the kata around the student's neck. It represents a blessing the lama gives to a student--and the scarf is usually returned. But in this ceremony the students left their scarves with Jetsunma until there was a large pile of white scarves, like a mound of snow. Blessings to her, from her students. Blessings upon blessings upon blessings. Some sangha members cried when they saw the pile. There was their beloved Jetsunma, her face round, her eyes warm, her mouth closed and holding in some emotion.
Later on there was lama dancing, a Tibetan tradition in which monks dance to horns and drums in ceremonial costumes and giant masks--a sacred ritual dance, the only kind a monk is allowed to do. There were prayers, too, of course, and a huge spread of food outside. Lights had been mounted on wires above the grass. And as the hours went on, the emotion in Jetsunma's face, which had been so poignant at times during the ceremony, began to drain away. "She just looked stunned," said one nun.
And perhaps she was. The summer of 1988 had been exhilarating but difficult, and Jetsunma hadn't been protected from hard times. She wasn't herself that summer. She seemed preoccupied. "She'd been a nobody her whole life," said Richard Dykeman, "and now she was going to be somebody. She was going to be acknowledged in front of the whole world. She was desperate, and I sensed that desperateness in her."
For the first time since her childhood Jetsunma found herself governed by others, worrying about pleasing others, and subjected to male authority. Michael had always been pliable, willing, cooperative--almost too much so. But Penor Rinpoche was another story. Repeatedly it seemed he had tried to humiliate Jetsunma during his visit. He had asked the ordained to circumambulate the entire temple grounds every afternoon--the custom at his monastery in India--and for some reason he'd made Jetsunma walk at the end of a line. She'd tried so hard to condition her students to be respectful of her and devout. Why did she have to walk at the end of the line? At times she worried that His Holiness was trying to break her, dominate her--or perhaps he didn't like her. He seemed critical. He seemed very gruff. And he didn't refer to her as Jetsunma--only Ahkon Lhamo.
Gyatrul Rinpoche had also been critical of her during the weeks leading up to her enthronement. In the past he'd been so upbeat, so goofy and supportive. Now he seemed more difficult, almost as though on behalf of His Holiness. He'd been horrified to learn from Kunzang Lama, one of Penor Rinpoche's attendants, that electric bug zappers were being used on temple grounds. "But we're Buddhists! We can't kill!" he'd said. Jetsunma had prayer flags put next to the zappers--as a way to offset the bad karma from killing the insects--but one night it was discovered that the electric cord had been cut.
Gyatrul Rinpoche had yelled at Jetsunma one day, when she had arrived two hours late for an event and kept people waiting. "How dare you make anybody wait two hours for you!" he shouted. "Why don't you come down a notch! You're too arrogant and proud! You need some humility!"
On another occasion he said, "You think this throne is a privilege, but it's not. It's a prison. The whole world will be watching you!"
When The Washington Post ran a story by staff reporter Don Oldenburg in which Jetsunma was referred to as a living Buddha, it was Penor Rinpoche who became enraged. He ordered the students out of the Dharma room the morning the article appeared and locked the doors. Sitting on his throne, in front of Gyatrul Rinpoche and a few others, he shouted at Jetsunma. "Are you teaching your students that you are Buddha?"
Jetsunma shook her head.
She shook her head again, and her eyes filled with tears.
"There isn't anybody enlightened within one hundred miles of this place!" the lama said. "Including me and Gyatrul Rinpoche. Are you telling me that you are enlightened and we're not? That you have more realizations than we do? Then I'm going to leave. You don't need me here. Because if you are enlightened, you don't need anybody!"
"His face was red," Jetsunma recalled years later, "and his temples were throbbing, and he said, 'How could you disappoint me this way?'"
Michael jumped in. "This is my fault," he tried to interject. "There's been a misunderstanding." But Penor Rinpoche ignored him and turned to Jetsunma again.
"If you ever call yourself a living Buddha, it would be a serious mistake!" he said. "This is incorrect view; your students will go to Vajra Hell, and if you continue this sort of thing, I'll never come back!"
Jetsunma and Michael told the lama that he had misunderstood the newspaper article. Jetsunma hadn't referred to herself as a living Buddha, somebody else had. And the reporter had clearly misinterpreted the remark. "I cried and cried and cried," Jetsunma remembered. "Don't ever claim to be enlightened!" Penor Rinpoche told her. "You are not enlightened! None of us should claim this! Even the Dalai Lama doesn't say he's enlightened!"
Afterward, Jetsunma shared some of her difficulties with her students. "Teachers will test you," she said. "You wouldn't believe how much." She shook her head, and her students were sympathetic. They had felt tested too, in the last few months. Penor Rinpoche had accused her of arrogance, she told them, and made her feel "young and raw and vulnerable. I was crying and sobbing," she said, "and he threatened to leave and all this horrible stuff." She told the students that His Holiness had "purified obstacles" from her life with his wrath. But later on she threw herself at Gyatrul Rinpoche's feet in distress. "Oh, don't worry," he had told her. "Sometimes lamas will test you ... What he said--all those things--they aren't true, are they?"
"You know," Jetsunma assured him, "they aren't."
The worst of the storm passed in time, but it never seemed entirely over. The tiptoeing and confusion continued. At dinner one night Penor Rinpoche looked up from the table and said to his new tulku, "How did you get that title, Jetsunma? It's higher than mine."
Michael and Jetsunma froze and shot each other an embarrassed look.
"Should we not use it?" she asked.
Penor Rinpoche looked at his lap.
"Should we call her something else?" Michael asked.
Others might have heard the not so subtle suggestion buried beneath the shrug. Others might have run out and changed their names immediately--to avoid causing conflict, to avoid making trouble, to avoid being controversial. Indeed, something more humble and less flashy might have been more appropriate. But Ahkon Lhamo kept the title Jetsunma, and in time it became her--and belonged to her--an emblem of her aspirations and achievements, her ambition and unrest, too. The Tibetans never stopped asking about it, but eventually even they became resigned and philosophical.
Jetsunma sighed a very long sigh. "Hog-tied," she said. "I feel hog-tied."