On Thursday 13 th April 2023, the Tibetan Buddhist master Lama Thubten Zopa Rinpoche entered his final meditation at Kopan Monastery near Kathmandu. He had just returned from a visit to the Tsum Valley, where he had shown signs of altitude sickness. Rinpoche was 76 years old and had lived a life of tireless and dedicated service to Buddhism and to the task of alleviating suffering across the world.
Over the following weeks an extraordinary range of Tibetan Buddhist lamas visited Kopan to pay their respects. These included Tai Situ Rinpoche, Mingyur Rinpoche, Tsogkni Rinpoche and Chokyi Nyima Rinpoche, as well as Gelug masters such as the Ganden Tripa and Rangjung Nangjorma Khandrola. “It is devastating that Zopa Rinpoche has departed in this way,” wrote His Holiness The Dalai Lama. Every corner of the monastery resounded with powerful chanting and drumming as thousands of people from across the globe queued up to offer their personal prayers and devotions.
The Buddhist Lama who inspired this outpouring of grief, gratitude and respect was renowned not only for his dedicated scholarship and realizations but also for his humility, generosity, warmth and laughter. He was born in 1945 into an impoverished Sherpa family at Thami in the Solu Khumbu area of the Himalayas, near Mt Everest. As a small child he repeatedly tried to crawl up to the meditation cave of a deceased yogi called the Lawudo Lama and at the age of five was formally recognized as his reincarnation. The child was taken to Tibet where he studied at Dung-Kar Monastery from 1956 to 1959 before escaping the Chinese invasion to join the refugee community at Buxa Duar in North India. It was there that he met his principal teacher Lama Thubten Yeshe (1935-84). – Extensive Lama Zopa Rinpoche autobiography –
In his previous life Zopa Rinpoche had made extensive prayers to be able to take the teachings of the Buddha to new audiences. In the refugee camp, he worked towards this goal by painstakingly memorizing an English dictionary, and in 1967 the two Lamas met their first Western disciple, an American woman called Zina Rachevsky. The Lamas moved with her to the Kathmandu Valley and began sharing their knowledge and wisdom with the travellers and hippies there who had made the overland journey to the Indian sub-continent. This was the origin of the famous Kopan Course, which for over fifty years has functioned as an entry point into the Dharma for thousands of people from around the globe.
It’s impossible to know how many lives have been touched by Lama Zopa Rinpoche. As his students gradually returned home from Asia they set up groups and centres, as well as hospices, publishing houses and other initiatives, now numbering over 140 in 34 different countries worldwide. In 1975 the two Lamas named this international network of centres and projects ‘The Foundation for the Preservation of the Mahayana Tradition’, abbreviated to ‘FPMT’. At the time the name seemed ambitious, but the FPMT is now one of the largest Tibetan Buddhist organisations in the world, offering structured opportunities for in-depth study and practice, extensive prayer books, texts and resources translated from the Tibetan, and innumerable social service and educational projects.
For decades Lama Zopa toured the world giving public talks, leading retreats and giving personal advice to his many students. Until Lama Yeshe’s untimely death the two masters invariably travelled together, offering contrasting but complementary teaching styles. Some of these teachings have been published as books, while others are available via online portals such as the Lama Yeshe Wisdom Archive. More recently, Lama Zopa’s extensive teachings can be accessed on Youtube, Zoom and social media. ‘Zopa’ is the Tibetan term for patience, and again and again he shared his profound understanding of the meaning and potential of a human life, of the vital importance of serving others, and of the nature of reality, all illustrated with characteristic humour, compelling storytelling, and an acute capacity to precisely analyse and dissect the pathos and absurdities of a modern materialistic lifestyle.
Rinpoche was a constant source of inspiration and support for the three FPMT centres in the UK – Jamyang Buddhist Centre London, Jamyang Buddhist Centre Leeds, and Land of Joy – and for the various study groups around the country. He personally invited Geshe Tashi Tsering and subsequently Geshe Tenzin Namdak to come to the UK as resident teachers, and supervised the appointment of every centre director for more than 40 years. Rinpoche’s most recent visit to the UK was in 2014 when he gave a series of teachings that were later edited into the book Sun of Devotion, Stream of Blessings,
published by the Lama Yeshe Wisdom Archive in 2016. In January 2023 the director and core staff team of Jamyang London were blessed to have a private meeting with Rinpoche in Nepal, at which he gave his warm approval for its current activities as well as his advice for the coming years.
Alongside his countless international projects, Lama Zopa didn’t neglect his commitment to the people of Nepal and India. He fulfilled the promise of the Lawudo Lama to set up a monastery for Sherpa children by providing both a traditional and modern education for hundreds of boys and girls at Kopan Monastery and Nunnery. He also sponsored a range of other schools and monasteries across the Himalayas, established an endowment of over $5 million to feed the 2500 monks at Sera Je Monastic University in perpetuity, and raised funds to support hospitals, old age homes and other community projects. Whenever people asked for help, he did his best to respond. Rinpoche was also passionate about sponsoring holy objects. Under his supervision, these have included the construction of massive stupas at Thame in Nepal and Bendigo in Australia, countless prayer wheels and statues, and the forthcoming Maitreya Project in Kushinagar, North India.
Although he was a tireless fundraiser for good causes, Lama Zopa Rinpoche personally had no interest in wealth, comfort or reputation. If you gave him a gift in the morning, by the end of the day it had invariably been passed on to someone else. He was spontaneously generous to anyone in need, on one occasion giving away all his outer garments to someone he had just met at the airport. Whenever possible, his preference was for the simple lifestyle of a yogi and ascetic, and he was renowned for working and meditating around the clock instead of wasting time in sleep. He enjoyed doing retreat, making prostrations, circumambulating holy objects, rescuing animals and insects, and decorating soft toys with dharma messages as gifts for his students. Aeroplane meals frequently went uneaten because so much time was spent blessing the food, and deadlines were repeatedly missed when Rinpoche stopped to rescue a caterpillar on the road, to chat with a beggar, or to compliment a helpful waitress. Everything he did was for the purpose of benefiting another living being, even if he’d never met them before
For his many students, beneficiaries and admirers, the passing away of this saint of our times feels as if a light has gone out. One of Rinpoche’s favourite sayings was:
Live with compassion
Work with compassion
Meditate with compassion
When problems come, experience them with compassion
Die with compassion.
Please join us in praying for a swift reincarnation who will continue his work of spreading wisdom and compassion at a time when it is so badly needed in the world.
Alison Murdoch – Chair of Jamyang London Buddhist Centre
Alison Murdoch – Alison was Director of Jamyang London from 1994-2004 during the years that the charity purchased and converted The Old Courthouse into a Buddhist centre. She was subsequently the founding director of the Foundation for Developing Compassion and Wisdom (FDCW) where she was co-author of the 16 Guidelines for a Happy Life book and app. Alison sat on the FPMT Inc. board of directors for nearly ten years and is currently a director of the Lama Yeshe Wisdom Archive. She is a Basic Programme graduate and teaching assistant, recently edited the book Lamrim Year, and runs a small centre called The Good Heart in her home town of Frome, Somerset.
Recently, in May 2023 Alison Murdoch visited Kopan Monastery to follow the prayers for Lama Zopa Rinpoche’s swift return. Here high Lamas, monks, nuns, locals and many students from around the world, come to pray for Lama Zopa Rinpoche, as “will now take a place in history as one of the great masters” – Yangsi Rinpoche.
For whom didn’t have actually met Rinpoche, or weren’t in Kopan, and would like to know more about that, Alison will share this and her most fortunate experiences of meeting with Rinpoche at Jamyang London Buddhist Centre on July 1st at 17:30. We look forward to sharing this powerful learning experience with you.