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The Keeper of Lawudo
By Merry Colony
In my years of going to Lawudo Gompa in Solo Kumbu, 14,000 feet up in the mountains of Nepal, I have seen people arrive from every direction and at all hours. Many get lost on the long climb to the gompa, which vanishes from sight regularly from either the steep incline or from the clouds swallowing it up. When visitors finally do make it to what they hope is the right place they find the heavy double wooden doors to the courtyard locked from within. This is to keep the cows in and unwelcome yaks out, but they don’t know that! Another 10 minutes finding a way over the stone wall and they are in, the gompa’s window curtains fluttering a tune for the stoic peaks beyond. It is a lovely scene and the trials of the climb are invariably forgotten upon entry. It usually takes no more than a minute to be ushered into the kitchen and given tea.
For most, the source of comfort and well-being at this place that can otherwise appear quite stark and isolated is Anila Nawang Samden, elder sister of Lama Zopa Rinpoche and manager of Lawudo since its beginning in 1972. To fully appreciate Anila’s humor, generosity and selfless service to Lawudo one would really need to make the trek oneself and then spend many hours sitting with her by the fire. But as not all will have that opportunity, I will do my best to describe a woman who has in her life gone beyond conventional concepts of rest, comfort or need for personal care.
Born the third day of the third month in 1942 she was given the name Pura Puti by her father. Her next brother, Lama Zopa Rinpoche, was born 3 years later. He left home when he was only 6 to study the Dharma with his uncle who then brought him to Tibet. Next born was a sister Chokyi who died when she was 10. One month after her father died in 1948, her youngest brother Sangye was born. So, at the tender age of 6, having lost her father, Nawang Samden had to help her mother take care of 3 younger children of a poor Sherpa family in the mountains of Nepal.
Of this time all she can remember is the work: collecting firewood, carrying water, cooking, portering Tibetan salt from her native village of Thami, 1,000 feet below Lawudo, to a market in Karikola 4 days down the valley. This she did unquestioningly, to help her mother feed the children.
In 1967, after 3 months of being very sick and near death, Nawang Samden went for advice to Cherok Lama, known for his very accurate divinations and strong Dharma practice. She was told that she should become a nun, practice Dharma and change her name if she wanted to get well and that she should take initiation from Trulshik Rinpoche. This she did, receiving her ordination name of Nawang Samden from him as well as nyön-dro and Chöd instructions. For a few years, Anila lived unencumbered, moving about as a Chöd-pa with only her small tent, bell, dorje, damaru and thigh bone trumpet. Memories of this period are always shared in a voice that is nostalgic and at the same time pragmatic. Things change (though her Chöd drum and thigh bone hang waiting near her bed).
In 1972 Lama Zopa – who had in the meantime been to Tibet, escaped to India and met Lama Yeshe – returned to his native village for the first time since his departure as a child. It was his intention to build a monastery as the fulfillment of his previous life’s vow to build a school for the local children. Lama Zopa’s mother, known as Amala, and Nawang Samden were to be instrumental. They moved to the place called Lawudo, or “Radish Store,” whose cave, when not being used as a storehouse for the local people’s radish crop, had been the meditation place of Lama Zopa Rinpoche’s previous incarnation.
With hard physical labor in near extreme conditions, Lawudo Gompa was built. Though she worked tirelessly carrying stones and cooking endless meals in nothing but four stone walls, Anila remembers this time with great joy; there were so many people (Kopan’s Lama Lhundup, Lama Pasang and Lobsang Nyima were there), so much activity, and most of all her long-lost younger brother was with them again. And they were building a gompa, one of the most karmically powerful things one could do with one’s life.
The building completed, Mount Everest Center was established housing a small community of monks whom Nawang Samden continued to cook and care for. But 3 years of commuting to Kathmandu (a 10-day walk in those days) for the winter and back to Lawudo for the summer, proved to be too arduous and expensive for the monks, so they moved permanently to Kopan Gompa in Kathmandu. From then on Lawudo Gompa became known as a retreat center within the ever-growing network of FPMT centers. Nawang Samden stayed as Lawudo’s manager. There was no one else to do the job.
With no formal education whatsoever and not a day of English class on her record, she found herself from that time on as the primary caretaker of the hundreds of Westerners who would come to Lawudo over the years for retreat. The English expressions she has adopted in that time are akin to those of Lama Yeshe, highly original and humorous, almost never grammatically correct, yet conveyed with such confidence and masterful gesticulation that the meaning is usually understood. Even when the intended meaning is lost, the laughter and tea that accompany her stories are always such a delight that it hardly matters anyway. For this is the company of a woman who has lived a life of service, and her tales are bountiful, often heart rending and almost always tinted with a humor that laughs fully at the trials that have been placed on her life’s path.
For the entire decade of the ‘80s, besides caring for retreaters, Anila took special care of her aging mother. Though Amala was tough to the point of almost being weatherproof and would never admit to weakness, she required constant care. When Anila wasn’t boiling up some special tsampa concoction for her to eat, she was distilling her daily cup of rakshi or preparing the butter lamps that Amala would offer daily in the cave.
She lost her mother in 1991. “For 50 years until Amala died, we together all the time. Always since born until death, we together.” She cried every day for more than a year. The hole in her life left by her mother’s passing was deepened when, a year later, Thubten Drolkar, the Sherpa girl whom she had rescued from an abusive father 15 years earlier, left to become a nun at Kopan.
Today when one finds Anila at her home in Lawudo she is most likely cooking or milking. Ostensibly she keeps her small mixed herd of cows, dzo and yak for the milk they provide. But I, for one, believe the reason for her daily feeding, milking and herding ritual to be more than the pitiful bit of milk she receives. This is Nawang Samden’s family now. On many occasions I have seen her pass a sleepless night while caring for a sick calf, feeding it from her own mouth if there is no mother. She has pujas done for their better rebirth and puts colored strips of cloth in their shoulder hair to indicate that their lives will not be taken for meat. When it is cold, they are given the warmest room in the house (below her own sleeping place), and when there is no grass left on which to graze, they are fed a very costly variety of tobacco plant, which warms them. And each year, her herd grows as she cannot bear the thought of giving the babies to an owner who may not take such loving care of them as she. For those who do go, there are tears shed.
When asked about her view of her life now and if she would like to go anywhere else, Anila replies in a characteristic manner that indicates her weariness with work and harsh conditions while at the same time her love of her home: “I like to go other place, but my karma strong. I always thinking Lawudo. Die in West maybe no good, visit okay. Me no knowing how die, when die. After good coming, no good coming I no knowing. Now me old, but karma no finish. Easy coming difficult.”
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- Geshe Lobsang Dorje
- The Keeper of Lawudo
- Transforming Hardships into Realizations
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Mandala Publications is the official publication of the Foundation for the Preservation of the Mahayana Tradition (FPMT), an international charitable organization founded by two Tibetan Buddhist masters, Lama Thubten Yeshe (1935-1984) and Lama Thubten Zopa Rinpoche. FPMT is a vibrant international community, with a network of 160 affiliate centers, projects and services, and members in more than 30 countries.
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