Ani Zamba Chozom was one of the first Westerners to be ordained as a Buddhist nun. Born in England in 1948, a serious illness as a teenager aroused in her a strong desire to benefit others. In search of answers to her confusion about life, in the 1960s she traveled overland to India, and has since practiced in many different countries and traditions. Today she lives mainly in Brazil, where her practical teachings, rooted in the simplicity of Dzogchen, are proving an inspiration to Buddhists and non-Buddhists alike. On a recent visit to Hong Kong, Frances McDonald interviewed her about her fascinating life, which will be published here on Buddhistdoor in eight weekly parts.*
FM: So you felt a strong connection with the Nyingma tradition?
AZ: It wasn’t so much the tradition, it was the way the teachings were being communicated. For me, there was something about Dzogchen that was crystal clear, whereas all the other teachings I’d had seemed to be so elaborate. Sometimes it can be very hard to keep track of the essential point of the teachings until you really become familiar with their skillful means, but Dzogchen just went straight to my heart. I felt, “That’s it. I don’t need any other teachings. I have what I need now.”
FM: Who was your main teacher?
AZ: In Nepal I got closer and closer to Thinley Norbu Rinpoche, who was an incredible master, a remarkable teacher. So unorthodox! He could really penetrate through so many of the neurotic games we play, so many of our tendencies to want to use everything as a credential for the ego. He could see it so quickly and cut through it just like the sharpest of knives. Somehow I could squirm away from many other masters, but not from Thinley Norbu Rinpoche. There was nowhere to go, nowhere to hide. It was like standing there naked. Every time you tried to put some clothes on, they were stripped off. It was incredibly painful! But I had so much love and respect and natural devotion—nobody had to tell me to have devotion. Wow! What incredible wisdom! I never knew the meaning of compassion until I met him—it’s not what we think it is at all, compassion. It can be totally ruthless. It’s that wish to free you, no matter what it takes. To take you on that journey, to connect you with your own basic freedom.
FM: And you attended the Dudjom Tersar transmission in Nepal.
AZ: Yes, I had the fortune to sit for one month with Dudjom Rinpoche through all the empowerments and all the teachings, and then other private teachings, and then three months with Dilgo Khyentse Rinpoche through all the Chokling Tersar empowerments, because he was giving back all the Chokling lineage to the young Neten Chokling, who was three years old and had just been recognized. In between, there were private teachings. People would come in and say, “Please, Rinpoche”! Dilgo Khyentse Rinpoche never got up from his throne, he was always there from morning to night. That glory, that magnificence! Majestic—that’s all you can say about Dilgo Khyentse—majestic! Gold—the aura, unbelievable, the embrace of wisdom. The immensity of his physical presence. And then, his realization just took you, just wrapped you in a different dimension and allowed you to see in a different way. Blissfulness. An amazing way of communicating another way of seeing, where everything began to melt in his presence. You just couldn’t hold on to all the things that you would normally hold on to, the way you identify yourself. You just melted into bliss. You didn’t want to be anywhere else—that was it, you were there. And you never had to ask him a question, you just had to think. He would just go ahead and answer every question you had.
FM: Did you request any personal teachings from him?
AZ: I had heard about these Dzogchen teachings that I really wanted, so I went to Dilgo Khyentse and said, “Please can you give me the transmission for this particular teaching.” And he did. But because of all the people present he couldn’t go into the commentary and all the details, so he said, “Now, you go to Chagdud Rinpoche, and Chagdud Rinpoche will give you all the details.” So from then on, Chagdud Rinpoche became my teacher. I was his attendant during those empowerments, and we became very close. I’d spend all day in the empowerments taking care of Chagdud Rinpoche and all night I’d spend with Thinley Norbu Rinpoche—he’d be teaching from any time after eight in the evening and would usually go on till sunrise. Somehow sleep didn’t matter—it was just the energy that I was being carried on—the blessings were so powerful! It just so happens that the principal lineage through which the Dzogchen teachings are expressed is the Nyingma tradition. You can also find some of the Drukpa Kagyu lamas willing to give the Dzogchen transmission, but not so much. Within the Drukpa Kagyu it depends on the individual teacher whether they put more emphasis on Dzogchen or more on Mahamudra.
FM: Did you stay in Nepal?
AZ: I became very ill. I went to Chagdud Rinpoche—I could hardly walk anymore—and said “What shall I do? What medicine shall I take?” And he did a mo [divination] and said, “Tibetan medicine won’t work; Western medicine won’t work. You need to go to Thailand and spend time with that monk that you met in 1975.” On my way back to India from Hong Kong—I’d gone there in 1975 to take full ordination—I’d stopped in Thailand to meet this monk, who I had heard ran a program for drug addiction. I was very impressed by him—he was a great healer. When I got back to India I told Chagdud Rinpoche that I’d met this monk and that I would have liked to spend more time with him. So the mo said I needed to go back to him—he was the only person who could help to cure this disease. No one knew what it was—I had no energy to walk and had lots of pain in the heart—all kinds of stuff.
*See: The Life Story of Ani Zamba Chozom: Part One – Journey to India
The Life Story of Ani Zamba Chozom: Part Two – Meeting Lama Yeshe
The Life Story of Ani Zamba Chozom: Part Three – Ordination, First Retreat, and First Teaching
The Life Story of Ani Zamba Chozom: Part Four – Finding the Nyingma Lineage
The Life Story of Ani Zamba Chozom: Part Six – Thailand, Burma, and Korea
The Life Story of Ani Zamba Chozom: Part Seven – From Korea to the Philippines to Hong Kong
The Life Story of Ani Zamba Chozom: Part Eight – Brazil