Ngakpa Karma Lhundup Rinpoche was born in 1959 in upper Mustang in an area sacred to Guru Padmasambhava. Soon after his birth, Karma’s mother opened a sealed earthen jar of traditional “birth beer” and a blazing fire came out of the jar. This was understood to mean that the child could be a reincarnation of a powerful yogi. His parents and several nuns raised him with much love and affection and in 1965 Rinpoche was accepted into a Tibetan school for refugees in Dharamsala, run by Jetsün Pema, the younger sister of His Holiness Dalai. Rinpoche talks to the Gentle Voice about the twists and turns his life has taken.
When you finished your secondary studies, you enrolled at university. But then you stopped your university studies and gained admission to the Holy Family Hospital in New Delhi.
The reason why I left university was that I went to university thinking there would be a lot of study to do like we did in school, but I found that nothing was happening for half the year. And there were some strikes in India. Once the cooks started cooking some chapattis on gas stoves instead of firewood, so there was a strike about that for a few days. I found life rather useless there and I decided that I needed to do something useful.
So you joined the Holy Family Hospital and completed a two year diploma in medical laboratory technology, Rinpoche?
Yes, I went there because before I’d finished secondary school, I worked in an orphanage school dispensary as an assistant to the nurses. So I got interested in nursing and went to the hospital to see if I could get admission to do a nursing course. But at that time there were no male nurses throughout India. They said if I wanted to do medical laboratory technology, there would be an interview the next day. So I appeared and got selected in a very strange way: there were five interviewers and four said, ‘Not this boy. He’s going to spend a few months here and then leave.’ But a Christian nun called Dr Fernandez replied, ‘No, he was sent to us by Jesus Christ.’ And she proved to be right in the end.
I stayed there and really dedicated all I did and was given awards for my service. I was never a good student in terms of scholarship, but I was a service-oriented man. When I left some Indians cried. Usually Indians don’t cry for Tibetans!
During that time I also took great interest in Christianity and studied the Bible quite thoroughly with Catholics, Methodists and Jehovah’s Witnesses. I also participated in the holy communion, although I was never given the flesh and blood of Jesus Christ!
So you left the hospital and decided to study tantra?
There were a few reasons why I did that. The main one is that my father is a tantric master, a funeral master, and it’s the responsibility of the eldest son to inherit his father’s job and carry on. The second reason was that His Holiness Dalai Lama’s sister Jetsün Pema used to visit me every year and one year she said, ‘Karma-la, you look like an Indian; you no longer look like a Tibetan.’ Jetsün Pema started the Tibetan school for refugees in Dharamsala where I studied. And since I was one of the first batch of students to graduate, she always had a very soft heart for us and checked what we were doing. So that really helped me make up my mind. And the third reason was that I had started getting white patches on my skin from all the formaldehyde and ammonia toxins, working in the pathology department.
You’ve mentioned that your father was a tantric master. And the Tibetan word ngakpa means a tantric practitioner. Could you say something about this?
Ngak literally means mantra and pa is a person who practises secret mantra. But when we say ngakpa, Tibetans often have an idea of a person who can make rain, stop hail, catch ghosts and get rid of all the evil spirits. That’s just an idea and it’s quite sad because some Tibetans don’t recognise that ngakpas also practise the most profound path of dzogchen. And I’ve also heard that in Mongolia people are scared of even the word ngakpa because it seems that the ngakpas were into black magic there. So people are quite careful with ngakpas.
The group of ngakpas I belong to is from the Mt Everest region, so most of them are students of Kyabje Trülshik Rinpoche. One of my own lamas was even the student of one of Kyabje Trülshik Rinpoche’s lamas, called Nwagang Tenzin Norbu. Nwagang Tenzin Norbu was actually the chief lama of the people around Mt Everest on both the Tibetan and the Nepalese sides. Both Kyabje Trülshik Rinpoche and Nwagang Tenzin Norbu belong to the Mindroling tradition, although they practised the Northern Treasures as well.
Over the next seven years you studied at Zilnon Kagyeling Monastery and completed a three-year retreat in the lineage of His Holiness the Great Fifth Dalai Lama. Then in 1994 you gave up monastic life?
Yes, one reason was that my lama passed away. Also, the politics in the monastery really made me quite sick. And I was the only one who knew how to read, write and speak English so the monastery was giving me all sorts of responsibilities, taking care of sponsorships, accounting and acting as a cashier. My main purpose had been to study dharma and yet I ended up not having any time to do anything with dharma. So I resigned from the monastery.
Then you travelled to all the sacred caves of Guru Padmasambhava?
Yes, perhaps I’m specialised in sacred caves! I went to all the caves of Guru Padmasambhava, Yeshe Tsogyal, Machig Labdron and Milarepa. I made pilgrimage to all the sacred caves in Tibet, Bhutan, Sikkim, Ladakh, Nepal and India. And when I visited Germany I even went to some underground caves that go on for about one and a half kilometres!
It’s quite unusual for rinpoches to be recognised later in life, but you were recognised in 2000?
Yes, I was quite amazed about that because at one point in my life I was very critical about the whole system of reincarnation. And then a lama recognised me as some yogi or mahasiddha - it was a strange feeling! The mahasiddha was known as Wariktsel Thokme and he was one of the main students of one of the wildest yogis, Do Khyentse Yeshe Dorje, who was the body reincarnation of the all-knowing Jigme Lingpa. In one of Tulku Thondup’s books you’ll see that Wariktsel Thokme pushed Do KhyentseYeshe Dorje into a river, then they ended up riding on the same horse.
Apparently, I was recognised by the tulku of Do Khyentse Yeshe Dorje who lives in Tibet and he was recognised internationally by His Holiness Dalai Lama, Dodrupchen Rinpoche and His Holiness Penor Rinpoche. So I thought, ‘Maybe there’s no mistake, after all.’
Would you like to say something in conclusion, Rinpoche?
When I came to Australia this time I had to fill out my immigration form. In the past I’ve always written down ‘priest and meditation master’. But this time I wrote ‘social worker’. During one of his annual teachings His Holiness Dalai Lama said, ‘Now it’s high time that we Tibetans, especially the monks, nuns and sangha, instead of paying lip service to this bodhicitta practice, put it into action. We must really do something for others in action.’ So I made up my mind that I would be useful, at least in my society to start with. I started acting as a bridge between the West and the East. I think the East needs material wealth and the West needs spiritual wealth, so we can do an exchange.
Till now I’ve found sponsors for about 100 nuns and elderly people in Tso Pema through Pantha Blazely and Judy Arpana, who lead pilgrimages from Australia every year. Most of the sponsors are Australians. Apart from that, I think I’ve been able to find sponsors for at least 300 Tibetan children. I’ve also been actively involved with the Tibetan Women’s Association in Dharamsala to raise funds for an office and a gathering place. And I’ve been involved in helping the Tibetan Day School and the Tibetan Kindergarten in McLeod Ganj. Then last year I started a programme for the stray dogs in Dharamsala, feeding them regularly, sterilising both male and female dogs, giving them anti-rabies injections and appealing to Tibetans not to chain their dogs up or, if necessary, only with a long chain. So now I’m actively involved in a useful way.
In Asia people spend almost all their life trying to get more food, better clothes, a better house, but in the West I see you have already achieved that. So now it’s worth spending some time developing your inner qualities. The qualities are there; they just have to grow.