Interview with Ven Jamyang Wangmo (also known is Jampa Chokyi). Author of The Lawudo Lama, Stories of Reincarnation from the Mount Everest Region.
During a relaxed meeting in the garden of the Utpala Cafe in Boudha, Kathmandu, I was able to ask Ven Jamyang Wangmo (Jampa Chokyi) some questions. It is August 10, 2020.
What is it with your name, you seem to have a double name, how should I call you?
When I was ordained, I was given the name Jampa Chokyi. Well, Jampa is fine, Chokyi is also fine, but the two together made me feel kind of uncomfortable. I really wished to change my name. After many years, I thought, ‘enough is enough’, then I asked one of my lamas, Garje Khamtrul Rinpoche, and he gave me the name Jamyang Wangmo. So, I like to be called like that. It does not matter, but actually it does matter because every word, every name, has its own vibration.
Can you tell a bit about your background, your life before you were a nun?
I was born in Salamanca, west of Madrid. My father’s family came from there and my mother was a Greek from Istanbul in Turkey. My parents met in Vienna while they were studying medicine. So, my future mother ended up in Salamanca. My father’s family was very traditional, and Salamanca is still one of the most Catholic, traditional, intellectual, and narrow-minded places of Spain. My mother had a hard time and was not happy there.
When I was 15, my father was appointed as professor in the university of Granada, so we moved to Granada. That was heaven! I was very happy there. I studied law, just to do something in order to not get bored staying at home, but was not particularly interested in law. In those days we were living under Franco and it was very difficult to be a woman; we did not have any freedom. So, I finished my five years of university when I was 21 years old. I faced some emotional problems, the relation with my parents was not easy, and I did not know what to do with myself. Then, since I loved painting since childhood, I decided to go to Madrid to study at the best art school in Spain. But that was a disappointment because there was not much room for creativity. Besides, most of the art students were not really artists, they were learning art in order to become art teachers and earn money. It was 1968, there were students’ protests everywhere, and communism was fashionable. Many of them were reading the Red Book of Mao, they held meetings and talked a lot about communism, but in fact they were the most bourgeois-minded you could find. That was another disappointment.
By then, I could not find any meaning in my life, I had many questions and nobody wise enough to give the answers. It was also the time of the Beatles, of the hippies going to India to meditate or hanging out on beaches on Greek islands. So, finally I decided to leave. I found a job in Greece to take care of a child, but I quit after just a few days. I visited some islands and spent a few months living on a beach. I read a book about Tibetan Buddhism and heard about meditation masters in India, and I wanted to go to India no matter what, but since I was alone, I had to find someone to go with me.
We traveled overland and finally arrived in India. After travelling a bit around India I ended up in Sarnath with almost no money. We were looking for a place to stay and two Westerners very kindly offered us a room. One of them, Keith, later became Gyurme Dorje, one of the best translators of Nyingma texts. They were studying Tibetan, introduced me to the first Tibetans, and lent me The Life of Milarepa to read. That was it, that book and those guys changed my whole life. Then I saw some Westerners wearing monks’ robes, so I began to question whether it was really possible for a Westerner to become a monk or a nun and to learn all the meditations that Milarepa did.
Then I stayed in Manali for a while, but my parents wanted me to come home, so I had to go. At home they realized that I had really changed; my parents did not know what to do with me, and I did not know what to do with them. We had nothing in common anymore. With my friends it was the same. All I wanted was to escape and go back to India. In those days there were no Dharma centers in the West so you could not learn Buddhism there. Also, people could not understand a woman who did not want to live a conventional life. Now women can go out, work if they like, they are not forced to marry, and so on, but in those days I couldn’t move and life was unbearable for me.
I managed to reach Amsterdam and get a charter flight to Delhi, and I sent a letter to my parents from the airport telling them, ‘my life is in India, bye, bye.’ I arrived in Delhi and someone told me about Dharamsala and His Holiness the Dalai Lama, but I had heard about Nepal, which sounded very nice to my ears, and decided to go there before going to Dharamsala. I ended up in the Kathmandu Guest house in Thamel, and the first guest I saw was a Western monk. I thought that was quite auspicious. Later I found out that he was Jampa Zangpo (Jampa Shaneman; he is not a monk anymore).
Then, someone said I should go to Boudhanath. At that time there were almost no buses or taxis; most people were cycling around. Once in a while there was a microbus to Boudha, and the driver took me there for free. When I saw the stupa I almost fainted. Wow, so powerful, what a place! I moved to a tiny room close to the stupa, with just a grass mat on the floor and a fireplace. I could buy firewood in the street and cook some food in the room. One had to go to the public fountain or dhara to wash oneself in the morning and to get water for cooking. The whole area around Boudha was rice fields, and since the houses had no toilets, we had to go out on the fields.
There was only one small Tibetan restaurant, Amala’s Restaurant, where the Westerners went to eat and drink and socialize. I used to go there to eat tsampa and drink Tibetan tea, which was my favorite. One day they put an announcement for a one-month meditation course in a place called Kopan. Someone recommended the place and offered to come with me to register for the course. I went up and was told to first meet the lama, who happened to be Lama Thubten Yeshe. He asked me, “Why do you want to do the meditation course”? I was very shy, but I managed to say something like, “I want to find out why I was born and what to do with my life.” Lama Yeshe said that everyone could come to the course, so I registered. On the walk back to Boudha I felt kind of strange, like something was going on. I entered my room and suddenly my whole life came up in front of my eyes, all the problems and fights, the disappointments, the search for answers, the feeling of being lost, and so forth. I spent some days just crying in my room. Then I decided, “I am going to do this meditation course and if this does not work, I will kill myself; there is no other choice.”
Then I moved to a rented house in Kopan with two Westerners, Lolly Smith and Susan (later Jampa Chozom); at that time they were building the gompa and there was no accommodation. They told me that the lama who would teach the course was Lama Zopa Rinpoche, who was up in the Himalayas in a cave known as Lawudo. One day they said, “Oh, Lama Zopa Rinpoche is coming tomorrow, let’s meet him at the airport”. So, about four of us went to the airport. In those days the airport had no fences, you just had to wade through the Bagmati River next to Pashupati, climb the hill, and you ended up right on the tarmac at the airport.
We found Lama Zopa with two elder monks sitting in the restaurant. I had no idea of how to greet a lama, so I had nothing with me. Lama Zopa Rinpoche asked “Who is this girl?” and someone said “She is coming for the meditation course”. As I looked at Him, I thought, how can there be someone like him in this world? Anyway, later that evening the lama and the monks were in the gompa and Susan gave me a kata and a bundle of incense, taught me how to do three prostrations, and I finally was able to greet the Rinpoche properly
I did the one month meditation course in silence. I did not want to waste my time chatting and gossiping with Westerners because I did not come to Nepal for that. The teachings were really amazing. All the teachings and most of the meditations were given by Lama Zopa himself. I took refuge with him and did a one week retreat in one of the tiny rooms they had just built. I took the five lay vows from Lama Yeshe, and then I went to see them and asked what to do next. Lama Yeshe and Lama Zopa were in two different rooms, on each side of the terrace. First, I saw Lama Yeshe, and he advised me to go to Bodhgaya to do prostrations. Then, I went to see Lama Zopa and He said, “Oh you go to Bodhgaya to do some prostrations”. Exactly the same answer.
I went to Bodhgaya and received Chenrezig initiation from His Holiness the Dalai Lama. I saw Ling Rinpoche, and received bodhisattva vows from Dilgo Khyentse Rinpoche. Then I thought, “I want to become a nun. There is nothing else to do in this life”. I had nice hair and was worried about my appearance, so I shaved my head, looked into the mirror and thought, ‘okay, this also looks nice’! When I came back to Nepal I met Lama Zopa Rinpoche but did not dare to ask about becoming a nun. I sat there and did not open my mouth, but he said, ‘Yes, you can do that’. Amazing! I went to Dharamsala, walked to Tushita, and met Lama Yeshe. I finally told him that I wanted to be ordained, if possible by His Holiness the Dalai Lama. At that time it was easy to meet His Holiness and even receive ordination from him. Lama Yeshe said, “Good, good, I will call the Office of His Holiness.” He called and they said it was alright, but I would have to wait some days. Now, we had booked a charter flight from Kathmandu to Lukla to go to Lawudo, and there was no way I would miss that, so I did not want to wait. So, I was ordained by Geshe Rabten in Tushita, and he gave me the name Jampa Chokyi. That evening Lama Yeshe sent me by bus to Pathankot and I finally reached Kathmandu. The next day we took a flight to Lukla and a few days later I reached Lawudo.
How was it to be homeless as a nun?
I was never interested in living in monasteries. I wanted to meditate in remote mountain caves and I stayed in Kopan only because the lamas forced me to stay. Sometimes I went to Bodhgaya and Dharamsala to receive teachings from His Holiness, and I had to go to visit my parents sometime. Then Lama Zopa asked me to make a large Chenrezig thangkha for Lawudo, then Lama Yeshe asked me to make a large Tara thangkha and to teach painting to the monks and to some westerners. He also told me to do 100,000 water offerings in the Kopan gompa and to continue prostrations with the Migtsema guru yoga.
In 1978 Lama Yeshe asked me to organize the Chenrezig group retreats at Lawudo. Rinpoche came to give Chenrezig initiation and the Tibetan nuns from Khari Gompa and a few Sherpas did nyungne together with the westerners. Since not many Westerners had been staying there, Lama Zopa Rinpoche’s mother and sister had no clue of how to deal with so many of them. So, Lama Yeshe ordered me to collect money, buy supplies in Kathmandu, book a charter flight, arrange coolies to take the goods up for the three-day walk, and, worst of all, deal with the Sherpas up there: Lama Zopa’s mother and sister were not used to Westerners taking charge of things there, especially of the food supplies; they just could not stand it. It is Lama Zopa Rinpoche’s monastery, but they felt it was their own family’s property, although they were only the caretakers.
I still consider Lawudo as my home, but it has slowly become a kind of tourist resort for rich Dharma practitioners and is not a retreat center at all. Since I could not do a proper retreat there and they just wanted more money, I decided to look for my own retreat place somewhere around. One monk from the Thangme Gompa had a small house in an isolated spot above the gompa, so I leased it from him, rebuilt it, and spent most of the following thirteen years meditating there.
Can you tell something about the process of writing the book?
Since I had been first to Lawudo in 1973, I met many old people and heard many interesting stories from Rinpoche’s mother, sister, and uncle. I felt a very strong connection with Lama Zopa Rinpoche’s previous life, and since I learnt Tibetan and a bit of the local Sherpa language, I could talk with the old local people and read some old texts. Once Lama Yeshe had told me that I should write a book, but I was not clear about which one. When I decided to write a book about the Lawudo Lama I asked Lama Zopa Rinpoche and he said, ‘Good, go ahead.’ I interviewed many people in Khumbu and in Kathmandu, including the Maratika Lama, who had been the main disciple of the Lawudo Lama and had written a small booklet about the previous Lawudo Lama. He gave it to me so I translated it and printed it.
Researching for the book was a very interesting process and I enjoyed it a lot. I heard many stories from Rinpoche’s mother, sister, uncle, and brother. I also talked to the grand-daughter of the previous Lawudo Lama and to his great grandchildren, and to an old benefactor of the Lawudo Lama from Namche. I also requested information from the first western students of Lama Yeshe and Lama Zopa, and from anyone who could give any kind of relevant information. When I had almost all the information, a Scottish nun offered me a room in England, so I wrote the first draft of the book in Lancashire. Then I came back to Nepal and completed the work on the book, which was published in 2005 by Wisdom Publications, with a local edition by Vajra Publications. A few years later I did some research about the Mani Rimdu and Dumche festivals of the Sherpas and published a small book. Then I put together two booklets about the history of the Thangme Gompa and the nearby Kyarog Gompa.
Besides writing (and eating chocolate), my main interest is painting. In the mountains I used to collect flowers for the altar and made paintings of them during the meditation breaks. But after painting them I wanted to find out their names and uses, so I read botanical books, took pictures, collected specimens, and by now it has become a huge flower project! I also researched a lot about the holy places of Khumbu and the amazing lamas who used to meditate in the now ruined hermitages of remote areas, so I collected very interesting information.
Right now I am finishing the work on Lama Zopa Rinpoche’s Chakrasamvara commentary. I put together the transcripts from the three main commentaries that Rinpoche gave in Australia, Vajrapani Institute, and Istituto Lama Tsongkhapa. I have edited it and in accordance with Rinpoche’s instructions, included quite a few notes and additional information from various Tibetan commentaries. It has been quite a challenge to find the accurate information about some particularly difficult points. I have used extensively the amazing work of David Gray, who translated the Chakrasamvara root tantra and Tsongkhapa’s commentary to it, the illumination of the Hidden Meaning. Since I am doing it for Lama Zopa Rinpoche and his students, I hope to be accumulating millions or trillions of merits!
Are you happy to be a nun?
Happy? Sometimes I’m happy and sometimes I’m not. Do you mean if I ever thought I should not be a nun? Never. It is the best thing I ever did in my life. That was totally clear to me. And it was also completely clear to me that I had to take full ordination. After all, either you become a monk or a nun, or you don’t. You wouldn’t want to stay in kindergarten all your life, would you?