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June 21, 2010 The Passing of a Great Teacher, H.H. Khenchen Palden Sherab Rinpoche

Khenchen Palden Sherab Rinpoche

You know, I don’t know why sometimes the universe seems so unfair.  All I know is, my teacher of  over 30 years passed into parinirvana the evening of June 19, 2010.

H.H. Khenchen Palden Sherab Rinpoche was a Tibetan Buddhist monk and master teacher.  He was of the Nyingpa lineage, but he was not only a Nyingma scholar, but also a scholar of many of the different lineages of Tibetan Buddhism.

I met him and his brother, H.H. Khempo Palden Sherab Rinpoche, shortly after they came to the U.S.  from India in 1980.  They were a teaching duo.  Khenchen spoke little English, and even after he learned it, he preferred to speak and teach in Tibetan.

Khempo was the younger brother by more than 10 years and when they arrived together in 1980, devoted his time to serving Khenchen.  Khempo acted as Khenchen’s teaching partner by translating for Khenchen as he delivered the teachings in his native Tibetan. Khempo was a scholar in his own right, author and poet. Khempo had been the head abbot of Dharma Studies a the Wishfulfilling Institute in Katmandu, Nepal, where he taught poetry, grammar, philosophy and psychology.

The brothers came to NYC on the request of my teacher, H.H. Dudjom Rinpoche.  Rinpoche was revered by all the high lamas as the head of the Nyingma lineage..  He was respected as a teacher to the Dalai Lama, and 2 of the Dalai Lama’s teachers, Dilgo Khyentse Rinpoche and Trulshik Rinpoche, were disciples of Dudjom Rinpoche.

The ancient Buddhist tradition of training included living in a cave meditating, practicing and learning the sacred scriptures.  It was not unusual for these masters to be in retreat in a cave for 10 years or even longer.

I first met Dudjom Rinpoche because of a good friend of mine who served as his secretary in NY.  My friend told me Dudjom Rinpoche was speaking in a church and I might go and hear him.

I was in my early 20’s, living as an artist in NY, dancing and creating theater, the beginnings of “performance art.”  It was a marginal and exciting life, waiting tables and creating artwork, all the time enmeshed in the cacophony of the soho transition from rag industry factories to cultural center.

That evening in the church, I added a dimension to my life that had been missing.  I was raised a Catholic and went to Catholic schools up until the 8th grade.  I was devote.

But moving out into the world, the strictness of that religion fell apart for me, as I experienced a much more diverse world of people and worldly views.  I found myself outside my family’s values, without a spiritual community.

The first instant I visited HH Dudjom Rinpoche in that church, I knew I would study with him.  I began to go to the Yeshe Nyingpo Buddhist Center on 16th Street, established by Rinpoche and where he taught every week that he was in town.

During a private moment with Rinpoche, he told me to study with the Khempo brothers who were coming to NY to teach at Yeshe Nyingpo.  I was one of their first students when they arrived in NY in 1980.

And so, it is with a heavy heart that I witness the parinivana of my beloved teacher, HH Khenchen Palden Sherab Rinpoche.

Temple with rainbow at Padmasambhava Buddhist Center called Padma Samye Ling (PSL), Catskills, NY

As I write this, I am sitting in my tipi.  It’s a beautiful day.  The sun is bright in a blue sky.  The temperature is perfect. My tipi is located on this precious land selected by the Khempos in the early ‘80’s.

Back then, they were driving all over upstate NY, looking for the perfect place to build a retreat center.  They found 500 acres outside of Walton, NY, 3 hours drive from NYC.

So many things had to be just right.  The shape of the surrounding mountains, the energy, the direction the sun crossed the land—and everything was perfect at Padma Samye Ling, (PSL), meaning “sacred lotus land”, the name  given to this acreage.

I missed the early years.  I was too caught up in my life to make the trip to the countryside.  They started with nothing and the first retreats were held under tents, cooking outside.  I heard the stories later.

When I first came, May of 1998, it was Memorial Day weekend.  The community house, called the Sangha House, had been built years earlier and served as kitchen, dorm (with 6 bedrooms sleeping about 12 people), showers, and one large room which served as shrine room, dining room and classroom where Khempos taught.

An impressive temple, called “Gompa”, had been built on the highest point of the land, but it was not yet complete.  The structure was built, and the interior was still bare concrete.

One day, we met in the unfinished Gompa.  Khempo Tsewang shared his visualization of the finished shrine room, which measured about 100 x 75 feet.  It was about 5 times the size of our little Sangha House classroom!

Tipi, my summer home, on the land at Pema Samye Ling.

Khempo said there would be marble floors and a beautiful altar holding large statues of the Buddhas.  He said they would begin right away painting murals of Buddha’s life and the entire Nyingma Buddhist Lineage Masters on all 4 walls.

It would be a big project, Khempo said, and if anyone present wanted to volunteer to help paintt, please apply to the person heading up the project, Michael Dunham.

Michael was an author and artist.  He had painted murals in Khempos’ small temple at their monastery in Sarnath, India.

I thought this would be a great use of my time, so I volunteered immediately, promising to spend long weekends.  That began a 4 year sojourn of weekends at PSL, part of a painting crew which waxed and waned over time.

I worked closely first with Michael and then with Serge Noskov, a Russian thanka painter. Thankas are Tibetan-style paintings of the spiritual masters, the Buddhas, and the entire temple was painted in this traditional style.

Serge had learned thanka painting with a master in Siberia.  When Michael returned to his home in Connecticut, and later moved to California, Serge continued the mural painting and oversight of its production for over 10 years.

He is still painting at the temple, as the mural goes on.  The interior of the large shrine room was completed some years ago.  The entryway was then started and the east wall was completed. Just last week, the entryway west wall was completed.

The temple was completed with the marble floor and wainscoting, hand carved woodwork both inside and out, with snow lions and symbles carved decoratively into the doorframes, mantles and furniture.  Most of these were then hand painted as well.  The murals and decorations were also hand gold-leafed.

Serge did not work on the project continually, because he had to return to Russia from time to time, largely because of visa issues.  Now he is here again, and the painting continues.

Myself wearing traditional costume in the completed temple at PSL.

PSL grew under the Khempos watchful eye and direction.  This year, 7 beautiful stupas were added to the land, arranged in a circle surrounding the temple.  These stupas were ordered to be hand carved in Java from black volcanic rock.  They were shipped, weighing over a ton each.  They were then hand painted white with sacred colors decorating them.

It’s impossible to list all the beautiful details which grace this sacred land.  (see  A dormitory able to accommodate over 60 people was built.  A separate Medicine Buddha temple was created from the private home of the primary donor to the  center, Bill Hinman, when he died in 2001.

Most of all, the Khempos developed a program of dharma teachings which eventually extended all year round at PSL.  They kept up a busy travel schedule, serving their students across the US, in Puerto Rico, India, and even as far away as Moscow.

Even when Khenchen became ill in January of this year, with pneumonia, he was reluctant to slow down or curtail his traveling.  He got better, but never got over it.  He was weak and last week he took a severe turn for the worse.

His passing came as a shock to me.  I didn’t know or didn’t want to know it was as serious as it was.  He was the ultimate master of kindness and compassion.  He strove to leave this example with all of us, the example of his life, the love of his heart.

H. H. Khenchen Palden Sherab Rinpoche last year.

I am so happy and grateful to have had his guidance all this time.  I am so fortunate to be able to continue with his brother, H.H. Khempo Tsewang Rinpoche.

They have blessed my life with more gifts than I even know, gifts still to be discovered in years to come. I have an entire family of loving friends because of these 2 men.  This sacred lotus land and the precious teachings of love and compassion are here for me and hundreds of others, created by their vision and devotion.

The land of my heart has been opened to me.  Thank you, Khenchen Palden Sheerab.

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