The Journey of a Modern Day Yogini Traversing her Charnel Ground
Early Years – The Call of the Dharma
Chöying Khandro was born in Nagano, Japan, an area surrounded by beautiful snowy mountains. As a child she was drawn to the Buddhist practices and rituals performed in her local area as well as to the elegant disciplines of the Geisha. Her favorite things to do were to read the biographies of great beings and to lie on the grass of her father's orchard gazing up at the sky. In Chöying’s youth, Zen and existential philosophy were influences but Chöying’s yearning for a deep understanding of Buddhism led her to study with Professor Akira Hirakama, one of the most revered Buddhologists of the time, at the prestigious Waseda University.
Amongst many other topics, Chöying studied such as Pali, Sanskrit and classical Chinese scriptures, the subject of her thesis was ‘Emptiness - Chandrakirti's interpretation of Nagarjuna’. Chöying’s fascination with gaining insight into and realization of Emptiness beyond a philosophical or intellectual understanding led her to make the decision to go to India to study and practice more deeply with the great Tibetan masters who had fled Tibet.
In early 1976, through a connection to Professor Samdong Rinpoche, Chöying left Japan and traveled to Sarnath, India, to study with Tibetan teachers. The Central University of Higher Tibetan Studies had not yet permitted female students entry so Chöying took private lessons. Being neither a monk, nor a nun, nor a Tibetan, nor a westerner with connections and networks, this was often a very lonely and challenging as well as joyful time learning and meditating alone to Chöying’s heart’s content. She studied scripture and meditation with Geshe Thubten Tsering, Geshe Yeshe Tabke and Geshe Jikme Dawa as well as poetry (Nyen-ngag), a seldom-studied subject these days.
Knowing that study, contemplation, and meditation, all had to be a part of her journey, in summer when the heat of Varanasi became unbearable Chöying often accompanied Geshe Thubten Tsering to Dharamsala where he taught and stayed at Ganden Choling Nunnery. Here she started spending more time in retreat in the hermitages above Dharamsala. Chöying received her first Vajrayana empowerment around this time. In winter she visited Bodhgaya for H.H. Dalai Lama's Kalachakra Empowerment and for transmissions and teachings given by great Tibetan masters from all four schools of Tibetan Buddhism.
In early 1980 Chöying returned briefly to Japan to submit her master thesis on ‘Shamatha and Vipashyana’. While her fellow classmates at Waseda University pursued academic careers, Chöying chose to return to India. At the time, Professor Hirakawa made the remark, "You are the one who buries the bones in the holy land". Chöying felt this to be a type of prophecy. Since her birth she had always been an outsider, following her own path, walking in the charnel ground. This time she left everything behind and returned to India for the sole purpose of realization.
Birth of her son, India, Australia and Japan
Chöying returned to India and did many retreats in Dharamsala as well as receiving multiple teachings from her teachers including H. H. Dalai Lama, Lati Rinpoche, Denma Locho Rinpoche, Thrangu Rinpoche, and H.H. Sakya Trizin. During this time, Chöying formed a relationship and became pregnant; at the same time, she contracted hepatitis. Unwell for many months, she was treated by Dr. Yeshe Donden. There was a serious earthquake in Dharamsala and one-day Chöying returned to her room to find that it had collapsed. During her stay in India, she read, in Tibetan, all the great masters’ stories, especially Tibetan female stories available at that time. These amazing yoginis experienced inordinate challenges but emerged as shining stars. Their inspiring stories of female realization and liberation held great meaning and Chöying dreamt of being a yogini, putting her baby on a donkey and roaming from one mountain cave to another.
Difficult health led Chöying to make the decision to go to Australia, the home of her baby’s father, for the birth of their child. Settling near Noosa her son, Mani was born at Nambour hospital. Alone, Chöying shared a house with other single mothers also with small babies. Filled with love for Mani, she felt that this must be the end of her spiritual life for the time being, but in fact, it became a new beginning and a further test and opportunity for spiritual practice. Chöying walked her charnel ground again, with neither family nor teachers for support, this time with her baby.
Moving to the States – Academia, and Retreat
After a brief return to Japan, though not particularly drawn to the West, Chöying thought that as a single mother a move to the U.S. would provide for her son an easier life and more secure future. She had carried a scrap of paper with the contact details of a dharma student, Julie, who lived in San Francisco. Chöying contacted Julie expressing her wish to bring her son to the US. So, in 1988, with a few hundred dollars, a stroller and a suitcase half filled with Tibetan texts and half with her baby’s clothes and diapers, Chöying arrived at San Francisco Airport.
Julie kindly let Chöying stay in a room in her attic. Although Chöying had some reservations about returning to academia, in 1990 she accepted a position as a teaching assistant to Professor Donald Lopez and Professor Luis Gomez at the University of Michigan. Chöying reflected that if she were alone, without her son, her wish would have been to continue a life practicing in retreat. During this period, Chöying made connections with Gelek Rinpoche, from whom she received many teachings, and with Chodrak Rinpoche, with whom she often practiced together locally. She also made connections with a number of great Kagyu masters visiting the States around this time to study Mahamudra.
Chöying’s longing for solitary retreat became so strong that at one point she left her six-year-old in Australia with his father and went into a four-month retreat in Nepal. This was a very strict dark retreat, which gave Chöying a glimpse into something deep and profound. At that time, she also studied Vajrayana commentaries with great masters in Kopan.
Meeting with her Root Guru
After this period of intense study and retreat, in 1993 all the grounds were prepared for Chöying to meet her root teacher, Khalkha Jetsun Dampa Rinpoche. Without hesitation, Chöying recognized the intimate and auspicious connection with Jetsun Dampa and the rare Chö Lineage passed down from him. As well as other rare empowerments, Chöying received the transmissions and empowerments of the Ear-Whispered Lineage. Rinpoche made two trips to Canada and the U.S. On the second trip Rinpoche guided Chöying and a handful of Western students into the Dakini Lineage, including the Seven Night Wilderness Retreat. At the end of the retreat, Rinpoche encouraged Chöying to translate the texts and preserve the tradition which was on the verge of disappearing. Chöying also assisted Rinpoche in the empowerments he gave.
Around this time, Chöying took the position of Library Cataloguer to all the Tibetan books that were being sent from India to the Library of Congress Program at the University of Michigan. This was a great pleasure, exploring an amazing treasure of Tibetan texts one after another. Chöying completed a second Masters degree in Chö, which was mainly based on Jetsun Dampa's oral commentary of the Ear-Whispered Lineage. Chöying was a pioneer of research into this rarely known tradition. One by one, she translated all the lineage practice texts and sadhana’s, thereby contributing greatly to the preservation and propagation of this tradition. Meeting her root guru and the authentic Chö lineage, Chöying’s practice and attitude toward dharma shifted to another level. Her longing and determination to receive all the transmissions and complete all the retreats intensified. She returned to India many times until she had completed all the transmissions and profound teachings from Rinpoche. Chöying received many of the musical transmissions one by one, literally in the ear-whispered way, from Rinpoche’s mouth to her ear. On each journey to India, she also visited Bodhgaya to make offerings and pray for the good fortune to continue her practice and journey with few obstacles. She continued to engage in long retreat as well as purification practices and many nyung-nes. Back in the States Chöying took every opportunity to do retreat in the cabins of friends during school breaks and weekends.
Loss of her Son
In 2003 Chöying went to Vashan Island, off the coast of Seattle, for a short three-week retreat. During this period a strong longing for her son, Mani, arose, so Chöying dedicated her practice to him. There were many dreams and signs directing Chöying to return to her son. She finished one week earlier than originally planned and returned home to Oregon. On the date of her original retreat completion, Mani passed away suddenly due to meningitis. He was sixteen years old, in the prime of youth, a young music-lover, just beginning to find his identity in an alternative school. It was for Mani that Chöying had come to the western land and he had brought joy and meaning to her life. His death left a big hole in her heart and in her life.
The trauma and grief of this loss plunged Chöying into a deeply transformative process. The Buddha’s teaching on death and impermanence and the inevitable suffering that life incurs struck her with great force. In her heart arose a great compassion for herself and all others. She was again walking in the charnel ground, now as a grieving mother who had lost her only son. Since her son's death, she felt that her practice had become stronger, enhanced by a softer and tenderer heart. Chöying completed such powerful practices as the three-month Self-Initiation, dedicated to Mani. Chöying was invited to teach at the local alternative high school Mani had attended. It was a healing and enriching experience sharing her love and knowledge of Dharma and yoga in a way that teenagers understood. Through this process, Chöying's Buddhist practice deepened and became more integrated. She could see this reflected by observing the positive effects on young people's lives. Around this time, Chöying also intensively trained in body-oriented practices. Through her own healing process, she came to understand that for the profundity and efficacy of Buddhist wisdom to manifest, it is necessary to integrate the entirety of human experiences.
Retreat and Chö in India, Nepal, and Tibet
Chöying continued to visit her teacher, Khalkha Rinpoche in India to receive further profound teachings. She was also invited to some Buddhist centers in Canada to teach and lead the lineage retreat while completing translations of all the lineage texts.
In 2009, Chöying went to India in order to stay close to her teacher whose health was declining and with the intention to devote her life to retreat. During that time, she entered retreat for a year and her understanding of Dharma deepened. After returning to the States, she had the great opportunity to go on a pilgrimage to Mt. Kailash which has been a lifetime dream. This time she carried Mani’s ashes to be placed at special spots around the holy mountain. On the pilgrimage, she generated strong prayers for the good fortune to practice Dharma and for realizations to dawn. She dedicated this blessed experience to the happiness of all beings. Chöying practiced Chö in many charnel grounds in India, Nepal and Western Tibet. These experiences brought her deep confidence in Chö practice which has been a great part of her life for a long time.
108 Spring Wandering Retreat
Chöying had one more dream that needs to be fulfilled in this lifetime, the culmination of the lineage retreats: 108 Spring Wandering Retreat, (Chumik-Gyatsa). In 2011 all the causes and conditions came together for Chöying to finally fulfill the commitment of this retreat with three other Chö practitioners. It was particularly auspicious as it was to be in the wilderness of Mongolia, the holy land of Jetsun Dampa Khalkha Rinpoche. It had taken seventeen years, since Chöying first heard of this retreat, for her to gather all the Chö practices and insights needed for this demanding challenge. When Chöying first heard Rinpoche’s words about 108 Spring Wandering Retreat “it was the happiest time in my life”, she kept his words deep in her heart and often wondered about how it would be to complete this retreat in her lifetime.
The retreat was difficult physically, mentally, and emotionally, as was to be expected. Chöying went through many experiences discussed by Machik Labdrön in her text. Despite these difficulties, Chöying experienced the great joy, bliss, and sense of fulfillment that comes from renunciation: a sense of emptiness, openness, and clarity of mind. The experiences in this challenging retreat, literally “wandering in the charnel ground”, also brought Chöying great confidence, courage and certainty in dharma.
Last Meeting with Khalkha Jetsun Dhampa Rinpoche
Upon the completion of the retreat, Chöying had the very good fortune to see and receive the blessings of His Holiness Khalkha Jetsun Dampa Rinpoche, three months before his paranirvana.
This last meeting with Khalkha Rinpoche was both auspicious and emotional. To have completed the wandering Chö retreat in the wilderness of Mongolia -Rinpoche’s holy land from which he had been exiled for most of his life - seemed the culmination of Chöying’s years of devotion. She reported to Rinpoche the completion of the lineage practice and expressed her intention to enter a long retreat, The Great Retreat. Rinpoche presented Chöying with his hat and maroon-colored fabric for lama clothes, as well as a yellow kata, which is used for offering to a Lama or teacher in Mongolia. Chöying expressed her commitment to repay his kindness and to carry the lineage tradition that he had generously passed on to his students.
Despite manifesting illness, Rinpoche acknowledged Chöying by expressing his delight and encouragement and giving her a thumbs-up gesture as she left him. Waves of joy, awe, heartbreak, and deep sadness overwhelmed Chöying’s heart. She knew this would be the last time she would see his holy face. At the same time, this last meeting confirmed her incredibly good fortune, and with this came a sense of deep responsibility for dharma practice and service. Chöying’s teacher had left her behind, and alone once more she must continue to walk her charnel ground.
Three Year Retreat
In the spring of 2013, one year after Khalkha Rinpoche’s para-nirvana, Chöying found herself in a tiny house surrounded by green moss and thick grass nestled under towering Douglas fir trees in the midst of a forest in Oregon. Next to her cabin flowed a beautiful creek, its water originating from the snowmelt flowing from the Oregon Cascade Mountains. The creek flowed to the McKenzie River and eventually emptied onto the Oregon coast. This forest was to become a secluded home for Chöying’s solitary retreat over the next three and half years.
The land, owned by friends, had been blessed by many Tibetan lamas, in particular, a number of Kagyu Mahamudra masters. As Chöying had received Mahamudra teachings from great Kagyu Masters in the past it was an auspicious place for her to engage in long-term meditation practice. This long-term retreat, traditionally called “Nyen-Chen” (Great Retreat), is a lifetime dream of yogi and yogini meditators in the Geluk tradition. It was forty years since Chöying’s initial spark of interest in the Buddha-dharma, and now all the auspicious causes and conditions came together to actualize this retreat. When her son, Mani, had died suddenly at the age of sixteen in 2003, Chöying thought that there would be nothing to lose in devoting the rest of her life to Dharma practice. His life and death were great blessings of both joy and sorrow and a source of practice in her retreat.
The focus of this particular retreat was to accomplish the commitments of one yidam deity. The process was an intense integration and deepening of everything Chöying had learned from her precious teachers and from her spiritual challenges and growth over the past four decades. Chöying experienced a re-wiring of her psycho-physical energy. The containment of solitary retreat provided ideal conditions for reflection, as well as an awakening and restoration of the relationship between her body, her mind, and her dharma practice. This was an experience of reconciliation with herself, a sense of who she really was.
Between the formal sessions, Chöying enjoyed reading the realization songs of yogis and yoginis and Zen poems. Reading autobiographies of great meditators had always been a strong inspiration for Chöying’s practice. Practicing Chö outside and doing Subtle Body exercises every day were a mandatory and integral part of her retreat.
Many difficulties, physical, emotional and mental, occurred, but eventually, they were transformed into blissful experiences. When she called upon her teacher, Chöying felt that mirror-like he would reflect back to her, her Buddha nature. Nature and seen and unseen sentient beings were Chöying’s companions. During times when she felt great loneliness, she remembered the words of a Christian saint “In solitude, we are least alone.”
Chöying maintained natural silence except for the one occasion when her dear friend, Lori, visited her from Washington. Lori was the only visitor throughout Chöying’s entire time in the forest. When Lori suddenly passed away less than a year after this visit Chöying felt as if she had received blessings from a visiting dakini. She completed her retreat following the one-month practice of the yidam self-empowerment in the summer of 2016. She dedicated all the merit and goodness from the retreat towards the freedom and awakening of all beings, all of who are essentially inseparable from her.
Since that time, Chöying has slowly begun sharing the teachings and practices of the lineage. In 2017 she founded a community called “DAKINI’S WHISPER: A Community for the Ear-Whispered Chö on and off the Cushion.” This particular lineage, called the Ear-Whispered Lineage of Chö (nyen-gyu) has only been discreetly transmitted until recently. This lineage was originally brought to the West by Chöying’s teacher, the late Khalkha Jetsun Dampa Rinpoche. Chöying has now taken responsibility for sharing the entire transmissions of the two Ear-Whispered Lineages, which she received from Rinpoche. This vision has manifested as Dakini's Whisper Five-Year Program in 2018.
The aspiration of Dakini’s Whisper is to facilitate practitioners in the West to drink the essential nectar of the teachings and practices of this rare lineage that has been carried through the centuries. Dakini’s Whisper aims to deliver and make accessible completely traditional and authentic Buddhist teachings and practices to practitioners in the West.
Chöying Khandro currently lives outside Eugene, Oregon, and leads workshops, courses, and retreats both online and onsite. Chöying feels greatly blessed by all her Tibetan teachers. Since she left Japan, while still in her teens and having begun walking the charnel ground of her journey, Chöying’s strong desire has been to know and live “the mystery of life.” Chöying has recognized everything that has come to her on her journey is a gift even, and especially the challenges of traversing her charnel grounds – all has been serving her awakening.
Chöying remembers from somewhere the phrase: “When your life contributes to your freedom, your life is called ‘wise’; When your life moves further towards the state of suffering, it is called ‘bondage”. Now, more than ever, Chöying’s motivation is to be of service to others and to realize her own personal authenticity.
© Choying Khandro
© Melissa Noble
Oregon, Brisbane September 2018