Lama's Full Moon letter August 2023

Vow Weekend, Khandro Rinpoche, Mandala Principle Retreat

Fri 04 Aug 2023

Vows Weekend

I realised, since writing the last newsletter about Ridgzin Shikpo Rinpoche’s funeral, that I missed out on mentioning how wonderful the Vows weekend was! The sun shone brightly and warmly for the weekend at the Hermitage on 3/4th June. In fact it was so warm that we were handing out sunhats and umbrellas! We gathered in front of the stupa on Saturday to witness 10 people taking Refuge, 15 taking the Boddhisattva vow and in the afternoon we welcomed 7 new permanent Mahayanagana members. The majority of the vow takes were able to travel and be here at the Hermitage, with a few joining online from home. It was as always a very moving and joyful occasion, celebrated with other sangha members, friends and families. 

On Sunday morning I spoke to everyone in a packed shrine room, reflecting on the life and influence of Rigdzin Shikpo Rinpoche. Sangha members had also been encouraged to write in and offer their own reflections on the passing of Rigdzin Shikpo Rinpoche and Tara read out some of them. I found that all very inspiring and moving. I encourage people to keep sending in their experiences since he has passed away, and it could be added to his life story which I hope we will be able to get together from all the different records that we have of it.We were also celebrating the 20th anniversary of the Hermitage, having moved in here in the summer of 2003. Tara told some stories about early days at the Hermitage in the afternoon when we enjoyed a splendid celebratory feast in the marquee. I was presented with a long life offering at the start, and then during the feast we had some wonderful entertainment including folk singing and a play of the Vimalakirti Sutra.

Here is a list of all the Vow Takers and their new names.


Paul Jones - Chödzin (Dharmadhara)

Alice O' Keeffe - Damchö Zangmo (Saddharma Bhadri)

Jonathan Ingram - Shingkam Töpa (Prashasti Ksetra)

Dan Ryan - Rang Tsal Rolmo (Shakti Shabda)

Ed Rothfusz - Yangchen Dewa (Sukha Gandharva)

Andrew Kerr - Jinba Tayay (Skt. Amitadana)

Jess Clapham - Metok Chimay (Pushpa Amrita)

Annette Matthews - Pakmay Gewar (Ameya Sukriti)

Ross Southall - Tabkay Jamtso (Upaya Sagara)

Michael Cosgrove - Tsultrim Tayay (Shila Ananta)



Sumeru (Jeremy Hagry) - Kunzang Chötrin (Samantabhadra Dharmamegha)

Pearl Jackson (Yeshe Tsomo) – Sem Ö Nyingbo (Chittaprabha Garbha)

Ngeshe (Meg Clarke) - Chökor Kunpen (Dharmachakra Samata Upakara)

Damzig (Jenny James) -Tabkay Penba (Upaya Upakara)

Gangadevi Tara (Sue Hickley) -Shardrol Kama (Nartaka Moksa)

Tracy Trefethen - Loden Jampa (Maitri Mati)

Meryl Hecquet - Hlayi Ponya (Devaduta)

Julia Hecquet - Zungdzin  (Dharani Dara)

Heather Alleyne - Dawa Özer (Chandra Prabha)

Jeannette Alomar - Nyutu Changchub (Bodhishighra)

Tsulba (Judy Herriott) - Nyingpo Kyemay (Ajata Garbha)

Utah Weber - Murgu Chimay (Amara Bhakti)

Belinda Davis - Drichab Chöpa (Gandha Puja)

Norbu (Jayne Goss) - Namka Luma (Akasha Gāyaka)

Rinchen Zurpa (Sheila Stone) - Zurpa Tayay (Kshanti Ananta)



Kunzang (Jackie McGarry)

Gendun (Patrick Basedow)

Kate Murry Konchog

Drolkar (Cristina Atanes)

Irene Delemore 

(Jenny James) Damzig

Tenpa (Frieder Kielkopf)

Kate Murry Konchog

Jamyang Judes Holloway

Khandro Rinpoche Weekend

At the beginning of July I attended a weekend with Khandro Rinpoche at Bryn Mawr in South Wales at Lama Rabsang’s centre, Palpung Changchub Dargyeling. I drove down with Jayasiddhi and K-Tso, Sudhana also attended, and there were several other Awakened Heart Sangha students there too. Khandro Rinpoche is always very, very kind to me and I'm always taken aback really, she treats me so respectfully. I had an interview with her, which I recorded, asking her about what to do with Rigdzin Shikpo Rinpoche’s ashes, and in many ways she was confirming what Ringu Tulku and other people had told me about how it's important to keep them all in one place, and to do the two ceremonies of purifying the ashes/relics and then of installing them in Tsa Tsas. Tsa Tsas look like little cakes but made of clay mixed with the ashes and then put in a mould with lots of mantras and little stupas on them, you can hold them in the palm of your hand. There's lots of them in the stupa here at the Hermitage. We're not quite the same as Tsa Tsas with the Lamas ashes in. So there's a whole process for doing that and Lama Phuntsok has offered to come and do the ceremonies for that, and we're discussing things with Longchen about when would be a good time, and Lama Phuntsok has accepted our suggestion that it be next August/September time, but we haven't fixed the time yet. And Rigdzin Shikpo Rinpoche wanted his relics to be in a stupa at Ty’n y Gors and there seems to be a general sense that the island in the little lake at Ty’n y Gors would be where he would have wanted it. So, I'm looking into how that might be organised. I've talked to Mandala Mother, Sally Sheldrake, and Tobi, Dan and Lee and others about that, and Pat McDonald who lives at Pwllheli. We've all been discussing how to do that. And I hope we can make a definite invitation to Lama Phuntsok to a definite date fairly soon so that we can plan it for next year.

I was amazed how encouraging Khandro Rinpoche was about the importance of my role in all of that, and I also asked her about what should be done with my relics. And she was very detailed about that – even more detailed – so I've got that recording now for my students to listen to. And Tara’s really focusing on trying to get as much detail from me as possible about what my students should do at the time of my death. So really you should all be able to know what to do, which I think helps the situation a lot.

The weekend of Khandro Rinpoche’s teaching was quite wonderful. She was teaching on the Dzogchen Samantabhadra Pranidhana, going through the whole text from beginning to end. That was in two days, four two-hour lectures, so it was quite intense. She was always emphasising, as she did a few years ago, when she was teaching the same text, that the first few verses of the text in particular can be really important. So, there's a line where it says there's one base, two paths and two fruits. And the one base being the Samanthabhadra mind as she called it, and the two parts being vidya and avidya. In every perception, there is this flickering between recognition, vidya, and non-recognition, avidya. There is always vidya in the avidya, and avidya in the vidya. And you can recognise, there's the vidya, you can have the vidya of being able to recognise the vidya in vidya, and in avidya. I took that away with me as a major point really, because we have this sense that somehow we're going to get rid of the avidya, and this is a point in the pointing out instructions, that Rigdzin Shikpo Rinpoche gave, and I give. Really it’s very simple instruction about thoughts, about not trying to get rid of thoughts, and even immediately that helps the mind to relax, to recognise we're not trying to get rid of thoughts. There's nothing to give up, and we say that every meditation session. And yet, even after decades of really reflecting on that… this weekend with Khandro Rinpoche, I realised that, absolutely, I'm still seeing avidya, as the problem to get rid of… it affects my whole outlook on life. And it has to, in a way, as long as I'm not recognising my true nature, I have to realise that that's the problem.

So, it's a really, unbelievably subtle, profound and shocking switch to be able to recognise that even avidya, even non-recognition, is actually nothing other than Samantabhadra. Samanthabadhra literally means the “all good”, and it's all good, even the avidya is coming as an expression of the Buddha nature or the… however, like, you could say Buddhajnana, or whatever, it's an expression of the true nature of mind. It's not something alien that needs to be got rid of. Such a subtle truth, and so difficult to stay with that truth and not slide off it into something conceptual, a conceptual version of that. And Khandro Rinpoche makes this point over and over again, and we will find ourselves coming back to that point again and again and again. Because it's so, it's so radical.

She made many other really important points. She's a very spunky lady I would say, somebody who doesn't mind just saying as it is, and she's quite funny. I have some interesting notes from the weekend. A very interesting description of how the 12 links of Pratītyasamutpāda follow on from the initial avidya or non-recognition. The explanations of the five wisdoms, the experiential explanation of them. So it was really a weekend packed with interest, really vital points and it would take at least a year to unpack everything she said, especially since she would go into very subtle points, and the more subtle the point was, the faster she seemed to talk. So I couldn't take notes and I couldn't remember it, it would be a major project for me to try to go back over it all and do it justice.

I left feeling quite satiated and amazed by her kindness to me, it was really very helpful. And on the way back, we were able to call in to see Five and Ziji. By that time, Jayasiddhi and K-Tso had gone off for a two-week break, and Sudhana was taking me back to the Hermitage. We stayed overnight with Five and Ziji and it was lovely to be able to talk to them about what was happening. And then the next day, we called in for lunch with Tashi Mannox and Sally Somersby. And, again, Lama Tashi was very encouraging and helpful and supportive of everything that we're having to go through. Of course, Lama Tashi was one of the early… he and his father and Sally were early students of the Longchen Foundation in Oxford and received transmissions from Rigdzin Shikpo Rinpoche decades ago. So they've known Rigdzin Shikpo Rinpoche for a long time.

Mandala Principle Retreat

Sudhana and I drove back to the Hermitage and the next major event was the Mandala Principle Week Retreat that Sherab, Lama Tara and Namka were running. I was able to have one or two meetings with them beforehand and I think it was a really good retreat, introducing Mandala Principle, and some exercises and some angles on it that need drawing out more and more.

Tara focused particularly on the love and compassion aspect of Mandala Principle – or perhaps you could put it the other way round, the Mandala Principle of love and compassion. Sherab talked a lot about Mandala Principles, how they apply in life situations, in the workplace, or at home, and so on. And Namka focused on how it applied in meditation. I think people found the combination of different teachers coming in with different styles very enriching and connecting. And it gave a strong sense of how the Sangha can work together, the people in the Sangha can work together in a way that, if you like, draws out their own, and the wisdom of others, in a very positive way. I think this demonstrates what the Sangha is all about, why it's so important. We can draw wisdom out of each other in a way that doesn't happen if you're just listening to a teacher who you assume knows much more than you, and you can sort of distance yourself into thinking, oh, you know, they are so wise and I’m so lucky to listen to this, but you're not really engaging in it yourself. Whereas when you're listening to teachers who are relating together and discussing these profound points together, you can pick up how you also could engage in such a process of reflection and have the confidence to allow your own wisdom to be drawn out of you, if you like. So I felt it was a really good example of how we're developing that style of exploring Dharma together in the Awakened Heart Sangha. There were many examples of it, but I thought this was a particularly powerful and important moment in our development as a Sangha. It's not that we haven't done this before, and we have been doing it for years, I think it's demonstrated how that whole process is actually gaining in momentum, I think you might say.

The following week Tara spent a few days at Ty Pren, and then I spent a few days there. We've got a week now before the next event, and during that time, I'm taking the opportunity to talk to people a bit, have more discussions with Dashon and a lot of discussion with Jonathan about how to take things forward. Talking to some of the Longchen people.

The week before the Mandala Principle Retreat, there was a retreat at Ty’n y Gors of Longchen students, just a small retreat of about six or seven people, and they invited me to their Ganachakra, which felt very special because it was the first retreat held there since Rigdzin Shikpo Rinpoche passed away. And then the second week there, at the same time as our retreat, there was another retreat at Ty’n y Gors. And Sally, the Mandala Mother, came for some of that retreat. And we had arranged for us to have a meeting with some of the senior students from Longchen Foundation and some students from the Awakened Heart Sangha, but in the end, that didn't happen. I did attend the Ganachakra at the end and I was able to have a bit of a conversation with Mandala Mother and Tobi and one or two others. And again, they came for lunch at the Hermitage, the next day, and we had lunch together and could talk a bit more about my vision, I suppose, for how to take forward the plans for Ty’n y Gors and especially I wanted to talk about the placing of the relics in the stupa on the island because I need to say to Lama Phuntsok as soon as possible when we want him to come. So we did talk about it, but we're still waiting to make a final decision.

I had a very nice visit from David and Rachel Hall from Cambridge, I’ve known them for many years, he used to run the Buddhist Society in Cambridge and several times asked me to go as a speaker, and we've often had very lively discussions there from the Theravada tradition, especially their sangha The Samatha Trust, and we talked about the Pali Suttas and Sanghas in general, and the stage that we've reached now in the west where a lot of Sanghas are ageing, and not drawing in many young people, it's something happening to a number of Sanghas. And how young people these days, how differently they're relating to things, especially since they have so much offered online, that the need for a Sangha is not obvious to the younger generation. And I expect they will come to realise how important it is in a few decades’ time. And at that time, where will we be? So this is something that is concerning for us all really. That was interesting, and inspiring. They were very inspiring.

At our community lunch, we were having quite a lively discussion between all of us about Dharma and meditation, and although they’re Theravadans and you might think, oh, well, you know, the kind of Hinayana approach - it is really not their approach at all, they're very much on the side of Buddha Nature, even you might call it a Shentong kind of approach to Dharma. So it cuts through all that three vehicle stuff, which is a huge topic, what is that all about? What are these different ways that you can approach the Dharma, and within different kinds of conceptual frameworks? But actually, in essence, it's all there in the early sutras. The latest commentarial traditions may spell it out more, you may have commentarial traditions that are kind of a bit skewed, but essentially, it always comes back to the same point, the Indestructible Heart Essence of our true being.

Next Year's theme - Pranidhana

So there'll be a lot going on, but in particular, next year, the theme is Pranidhana. I haven't been able to do as much as I would have liked on the Vaster Vision this year, but I have drawn your attention to it. And maybe that's enough to recognise how the next topic, which is Pranhidana, how that arises out of an appreciation of the Vaster Vision of the Mahayana, if you like. But all Buddhism has this vast vision of past and future lives, determining what is happening to us and what will happen to us and determining how to be able to continue on the path to Awakening from life to life, that the path isn't just for this life, just to kind of make things more… to make you feel better in this life. The path is actually about going beyond birth and death, which implies that we recognise that birth and death don't just stop when you die, they didn't just start when you were born. It's something that's far vaster than that, it's something that's just been going on endlessly. And we've been through it over and over again. And we will continue to go through it over and over again. And in the context of that, how do you get out of that? How do you break out of that, and Pranhidana is the essence of how you do that. Because we have the power of Pranhidana in our being we can decide, we can make up our mind, to follow a certain path. We can make up our minds to not do certain things and to definitely commit ourselves to doing other things. Therefore we can take Refuge. Therefore, we can take the Bodhisattva vow. Therefore we can be held on the Path of Awakening by the Mandala of Awakening. And that all hangs on our ability to choose our path and to stick to it and commit ourselves to it. If we didn't have that ability, there would be no path, there would be no Buddhism, there wouldn't be any hope, it would just be constant confusion going on and on endlessly.

So Pranhidana is like the key to the whole thing. But it is not enough to think, Oh, it's just, you know, wishful thinking. It's actually our power, our ability that we have now, even though we're trapped in confusion, it doesn't matter how much confusion we're trapped in, we can still make a Pranhidana towards awakening. It's a matter of removing any kind of obstacles to that. And that's what the Dharma practice, the Dharma practice that, if you like, is a conceptual structured Dharma practice, rather than the non-conceptual resting in the true nature of reality, kind of Dharma practice. So the conceptual practice is all about how to strengthen our Pranhidanas, how to be able to give up wrong ways of thinking, how to be able to give, to be able to practise shila, practise kshanti… and the energy that arises from that, the vidya that arises from that, can then be used for focusing the mind. And then that can be used as a way of stabilising our insight into the true nature of our being. These are absolutely vital practices. You could call them, okay, these are everyday life practices that we can do, but actually, they are how we carry out our Pranhidanas, our Refuge and our Bodhisattva vow, and all our commitments, keeping the precepts. Everything is based on the power we have to choose. And we can choose within that context of the vaster vision.

So that's starting next year, but what I want to talk about too, is that next year, I want us all to focus on the theme of death and dying. This year began, at the end of April, with Rigdzin Shikpo Rinpoche passing away without having prepared for it at all. So that has left a lot of confusion. But it's also demonstrated that it can happen to anybody, and it can happen any day. There's not necessarily any warning at all. In his case, there was no warning. In many cases, there is some warning, we've got some sense that it's coming soon, and we get ourselves together. But we need to get ourselves together now because it could happen any day. Just look around you. Just listen to the news. Just listen to people's life stories. It can happen any day. And it's important to even, just for the peace of mind of the people around you, that you have prepared yourself properly, let alone that you've prepared yourself with this vaster vision of knowing you're going to go from life to life. And the most important thing about dying is that you've established yourself on the Path of Awakening, and you're unshakable, so that birth and death can happen without your losing your way.

Dawa and her team have been preparing some wonderful materials for taking the whole Sangha through the training in how to reflect and prepare oneself for one's own death and the death of others in our lives. So I'm looking forward to seeing how she's able to organise that with Katie and the rest of the team so that everybody can benefit from this aspect of Pranhidana. Because death really focuses us on the importance of Pranhidana, which we've glimpsed over the years, and especially in this year on the vaster vision and how Bodhisattvas arrive at awakening, the Bodhisattva path in the Mahayana Sutra Principles book. So that's the theme for next year that we're starting to prepare. So, in the meantime, practise well, and I'm looking forward to the THB retreat soon.

Love Shenpen