(Photo Credit: Copyright Volker Dencks)
To condense more energy in five feet, two inches is unimaginable. Like a high-powered, nimble, compact car, Jetsun Khandro Rinpoche zoomed through the Verizon Center in Washington, D.C. at top speed. With the resolute gestures of a seasoned choirmaster, she directed 175 volunteers, shepherding them into a smiling army of ushers. During the multiple day visit of His Holiness the Fourteenth Dalai Lama to the Capital in 2011, she and her team worked around the clock behind the scenes to make his rare Kalachakra event in the West a success. Lack of sleep never slows Khandro Rinpoche down. “Being available; helping whenever, wherever, whomever” is how she defines Buddhism in action.
The Verizon Center provided a fitting snapshot of what Khandro Rinpoche is all about: making a difference without making a fuss; being of service while escaping the limelight. “Service” might be the word she uses most, and rather than just preaching, she lives it. “She used to be like an AK47, just boom boom boom, getting things done,” her sister Jetsun Dechen Paldron quips. “She thinks she has mellowed out, but while she might have become more focused, she is still just so much energy one person almost cannot contain it.”
Jetsun Khandro Rinpoche is one of the very few fully trained female incarnations in the Tibetan Buddhist tradition. Women, especially, are drawn to her strong warrior-like presence. “It is unusual to see a woman who is so at ease with power,” one American nun observes, “and who uses it, but with kindness, never falling into the traps of a power trip.”
Khandro Rinpoche jets tirelessly between her late father’s monastery and her own two nunneries in India, her American headquarters in the Shenandoah mountains in Virginia (just a few hours drive from Washington), and an ever-increasing number of Buddhist communities who are keen to benefit from her sharp acumen. As if this weren’t enough, she also spearheads an unusually large number of social projects—from taking care of abandoned lepers, seniors, and stray dogs in India to planting trees in Virginia. “You can let go of self-cherishing by sitting in a humid cave for fifteen years and developing arthritis, you can do it by shaving your head and living in a monastery, or you can do it right here, in the middle of Washington D.C.,” she said when I interviewed her for my book “Dakini Power.”
Khandro Rinpoche’s unmatched stature comes with a heightened sense of scrutiny. Aware that she was closely watched from a young age onward, she decided early on not to shy away from the role of a trailblazer. “If I mess up, I could mess it up for a lot of women,” she admits frankly, echoing the sentiments of many female CEOs. “As a woman, you can accomplish a hundred things perfectly, and then you make one mistake and everybody goes, ‘See, she can’t do it.’ That would affect not only my path but the confidence in Tibetan women.” There is no need to worry, for the opposite is true. Her undaunted pioneering work has ensured a ripple effect for women, especially nuns, throughout Asia and the West. Though Khandro Rinpoche downplays her own significance, her influence both in the East and West can hardly be overstated. Rita M. Gross, one of the foremost feminist Buddhist scholars, acknowledges “that the presence of female teachers is really the key issue. If there are not many women teachers present, it is a clear sign of patriarchy. Khandro Rinpoche is very empowering to her female Western students because of her example.”
Khandro Rinpoche, born in 1968, has learned the craft of developing and sharing Buddhist wisdom almost from the crib. Her father, the Eleventh Kyabj Mindrolling Trichen, who was the head of the Ancient School of Tibetan Buddhism, had escaped Chinese oppression at the age of 29 by fleeing Tibet to Kalimpong in 1959, and settled in the sleepy former British hill station in the Lower Indian Himalayas. By the time his first daughter was born, he was immersed in the immense task of reestablishing the eminent Mindrolling monastery in exile. Rinpoche’s upbringing exemplifies the fate of the second generation of Tibetan refugees: she has never been to Tibet and has never seen the elegant brown stone monastery that used to be the ancient home of her lineage. “I have applied many times, been denied many times,” she says matter of factly.
All but eight of the once-flourishing six thousand Tibetan temples and monasteries were reduced to rubble during the so-called Cultural Revolution in the sixties. Though some have been rebuilt since, Communist China tightly restricts the number of monks and nuns who once made up a sixth of the entire population. Even just possessing a picture of the Dalai Lama can lead to imprisonment in a Chinese forced labor camp. With the massive transportation of millions of Han Chinese into the Tibetan areas, the remaining five to six million Tibetans are now a minority on their own turf. While the traditional practices of circumambulating holy shrines and reciting powerful mantras are largely being suppressed in the land of their origin, these ancient rites are being revived and taught anew to an eager generation of Western students.
In addition to shouldering responsibilities at the Mindrolling monastery in India, Rinpoche is also nurturing this shoot of Buddhism in the West. The 16th Karmapa recognized her as an incarnation of a great female master when she was only 10 months old. For more than a decade, she, her mother, and her younger sister lived as the only women among 500 monks in the monastery that her father and mother had rebuilt in exile.
Khandro Rinpoche’s biography is interwoven with rare and exceptional experiences and traits for a Tibetan woman: an injection of limitless self-confidence by her parents, full training in all aspects of Tibetan ritual as a tulku, paired with Western-style education and the freedom to make her own choices. In her early twenties she headed to America for a crash course in Western thinking. Heeding her mother’s wish for a broad education, she studied journalism, homeopathy and business management for a few years—clearly being groomed as a future ambassador of Tibetan Buddhism.
Why are there not more female Tibetan Buddhist teachers like her? Khandro Rinpoche points out that there were many realized female practitioners in Tibet, “but they stayed away from the great monasteries, the powerhouses.” Tibetan women were rarely encouraged to receive higher education, thus few of them wrote books or assumed lofty titles and we simply have never heard of them, but the Tibetans revered them. She agrees that the need for female teachers is immense. Educating and empowering women is at the core of her work. “Maybe I can help put a little bit of plaster in the cracks here and there,” she quips. “There is very little I can do individually, but I can be a medium through which more women become confident, dynamic leaders.”
Khandro Rinpoche has established a nunnery in North India that she describes as “extremely vibrant with wonderful, strong women.” In addition to passing on the traditional rituals, Khandro Rinpoche actively educates them toward financial independence, bringing in trainers for business management, sometimes even martial arts. “The idea is that they get traditional as well as Western education and become confident, capable leaders.”
She has found her own way of balancing the demands and prejudices that come her way constantly: “If being a woman is an inspiration, use it. If it is an obstacle, try not to be bothered.”
Michaela Haas, PhD, is an international reporter, lecturer, and consultant. She is the author of “Dakini Power: Twelve Extraordinary Women Shaping the Transmission of Tibetan Buddhism in the West,” which was published by Snow Lion/Shambhala this April, a visiting lecturer at the University of California Santa Barbara, and the founding owner of the consulting company Haas live.