Buddhistdoor View: Keeping the Personal Touch—Khandro Thrinlay Chodon's Example
In diverse locales around the globe where Buddhist masters fill hotel ballrooms, concert halls, and country clubs, the Vajrayana master Khandro Thrinlay Chodon has her own unique feminine style.
During a visit to Hong Kong in late September, Khandro Thrinlay Chodon held talks and ceremonies in intimate spaces where she and students old and new were free to talk and share their feelings and vulnerabilities. Preferring an art gallery and meditation center to stadium-sized venues, Khandro Rinpoche clearly relates intimately with her students, who are overwhelmingly laypeople, as a friend and fellow lay practitioner (she is not part of a monastic institution). She also took on the role of a storyteller, preferring a more free-flowing, “feminine” presence of compassion and mindfulness, and sharing her life in a frank and open manner.
It was evident from the atmosphere in two of her Dharma talks that quite a few attendees felt disarmed and pleasantly surprised by the “non-institutionalized” teachings imparted by this female lay master. While an accomplished teacher can easily establish a personal connection with open-minded attendees at their events, Khandro Rinpoche’s personal style ensures a much greater chance that she and her students can enjoy extended, meaningful one-on-one interaction.
This is inevitably more difficult for some high Rinpoches and learned masters with celebrity-like public profiles who effectively make up a jet-setting group of influential teachers with immense numbers of students all over the world. One common observation from many practitioners is that as their master’s fame and recognition increases and his or her congregations balloon in size—literally stretching across continents—the teacher has little choice but to join the ranks of those whose busy schedules must accommodate increasing calls for their presence in ever more places. While hundreds of thousands (perhaps even millions) of practitioners rely upon these teachers as their root gurus, the teachers themselves have less and less time to attend to students on an individual basis and when there is a rare chance for an encounter, whether through a communal empowerment or a visit to the student’s country of residence, the classes are often quite large and impersonal.
This poses a dilemma for both teachers and students. The masters do their utmost to be present and grounded with whomever they come into contact, and by and large they do so successfully. However, they are but individual sentient beings with a need to accommodate ever-more-demanding schedules, even if they project their minds to embrace people across oceans. It is almost inevitable that they have less time to nurture individual students. Meanwhile, most practitioners understand that they should not be attached even to their teachers, yet many Buddhist schools urge devotion to a preceptor. In Vajrayana, for example, one is often encouraged to revere the guru as the agent who will personally transmit the methods leading to liberation.
The feeling of distance on the part of some students, while sometimes borne out of unwarranted attachment, is a real experience that should be discussed, especially since Buddhism has always adapted to changing times. In centuries past, Buddhist masters would rarely travel beyond the boundaries of a kingdom or empire, or even beyond a region within those states, making it easier to provide extended personal attention to small congregations of students. Now that many contemporary masters have acquired large followings, it is important that they constantly seek out ways to maintain that personal touch.
Khandro Rinpoche is not only a Vajrayana master, but also comes from an extended family of learned teachers, including her great-grandfather Togden Shakya Shri and father Apho Rinpoche. Her maternal bloodline belongs to Lonpo Gar, a minister of the first Tibetan emperor Songtsen Gampo (604–50). The authenticity of her lineage is believed to be pristine and so precious that it is manifesting in this time through her female embodiment.
Khandro Rinpoche has made it clear that she prefers small-scale, organic settings to communicate her teachings. Her approach allows her to freely invite students, some of them uninitiated or from different traditions, to join her on pilgrimages and to become involved at a personal level in her humanitarian and education activities. This is not to say that other teachers do not, but it is quite a bit easier for Khandro Rinpoche to decide her own schedule and arrangements, unlike many others who need professional secretaries and managers to plan and implement their diaries.
It is natural for practitioners of all traditions to revere and admire their preceptors. This reverence is a form of love that needs to be expressed through personal time with their teachers. However, in our modern culture—especially in the West, where people tend to air issues more openly—it is not unexpected that students have become more vocal their concern about having less access to their masters. It could well be that Khandro Rinpoche’s insistence on a more intimate, personal approach sets a tone or emphasis that could be worth learning from.