A Life of Discipline, a Rainbow Death

The following article is from the Autumn, 1988 issue of the Snow Lion Newsletter and is for historical reference only. You can see this in context of the original newsletter here.

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Am Jetsun Dolma

A flock of green parrots settle on the lantana brush. Up the hillside a gnarled ancient tree frames the dense jungle. To its right a small chorten gleams white in the morning sun, brilliant and unearthly. There rest the ashes of Ani Jetsun Dolma, a woman whose awesome spiritual attainment has become a modern legend.

The Tibetan Refugee Camp of Lobersing in the eastern ghats of Orissa, India is alive with the sound of morning chores, cows lowing, babies calling, and breakfast fires crackling. When we first came to the camp from Tibet in the early 60's we did not know about her greatness, explains my translator, Jamyang Dolma, as we enter her neighbor Sengela's sitting room. She stayed by herself in a shack in the jungle always doing her prayers and meditation. She did not enter the camp and we were afraid of the jungle. Our lives were very difficult then.

A small group of villagers and nuns gather about us eager to share their memories of the great saint. Ani Jetsun remained isolated in her retreat for nearly two years, a tall, thoughtful woman shares. One day a woodcutter chanced by her hut and wondered about her isolation. Troubled by family problems he requested a Mo (divination). The information she gave him was exact, his problems were quickly resolved. Soon everyone in the camp had heard his story.

The people of the camps began turning to her for Jielp. Without any kind of medical assistance, the heat, the malarial insects and lack of adequate nutrition were a formidable challenge. She kept a bottle full of water near her, explained Sengela with an infectious smile. During her meditations she would blow on the water. When someone came to her for help she would give them a drop of that water. Only one drop of water would cure all kinds of diseases, even of our cattle.

To the women she was priceless beyond measure. Bearing children was a dangerous ordeal, said Tseten Dolma, Sengela's wife. During the last stages of our pregnancy we would go to Ani Jetsun with some butter and she would blow on it and say mantras. When we went into labor we would eat some of that butter. Immediately the baby would be born. The butter we ate would be found on the baby's head. For those years no babies or mothers were lost.

We could talk freely to her, Jamyang added. She was a woman, so we women could tell our troubles freely to her, she would understand. Sengela's brother nodded his head slowly. Her Mo was always accurate. She could help you find what was lost. She could tell the outcome of events. And always she advised us to avoid harming others. She told us it would bring peace and from that peace we could experience the depth of spirituality.

She saved the crops one year, mused a farmer, kneading his work-worn hands. When we first arrived the local tribals were wild. They dressed in leaves and hunted for their food. There were elephants, bear, and wild boar. When our fields were planted and the corn ripening, the animals would come to feed and the tribals would chase them, trampling everything underfoot. Ani Jetsun had us bring her some earth from the field. She blew on it and we scattered it through the plots. We never had that problem again.

Ani Jetsun still did not make herself readily available. She rarely left her hut. When she did it would be in the middle of the night to go to the large stupa at the edge of the camp and pray. She remained in retreat allowing the villagers an opportunity for brief interviews only a couple of times during the year.

Often when we would visit she would have snakes crawling around and over her, said Ani Kata, one of her disciples. Poisonous snakes. Cobras. She had no fear. Sitting with her one day I watched a big frog hopping across the room. One of the cobras made to strike but Ani Jetsun brushed him away so that the frog could escape. Bears would come to eat the torma (ritual cake) after her ceremonies. Mosquitos would not drink her blood. Even the hyenas left her in peace.

Her body was golden radiant, added another nun. She barely ate, only a bowl of milk with a little wheat flour. Yet she was big and fleshy. Jamyang laughed, She never kept anything for herself. We would bring her offerings of all kinds of foods, our favorite delicacies. She gave it all away.

Children's voices call from the dusty path, She's here, she's here. A neat, self-contained young woman greets us. Chang-chup Cherton lived with Ani Jetsun in the jungle for 7 months studying meditation. To her, Ani Jetsun shared some of her story.

She was born to a very rich nomad family of Redding, an eastern district of Tibet. No need to worry, she would live in luxury for the rest of her life. At 16 her parents arranged for her to get married. For one month she considered her prospects. Marriage. Children. It seemed like a world of misery to herending in death. She worried about her ignorance of the dharma, sure that hell was her inevitable destination. She ran away from home determined to acquire the teachings she craved.

From the back room comes the low mutter of prayers. The children press close, wide-eyed. Changchup continued, For many days Ani Jetsun travelled alone unmindful of the dangers or difficulties. She made her way to Nyingma Shungse, a nunnery near Lhasa and offered her hair to the abbottess, Lojin Rinpoche. After some years of study and practice she went on a pilgrimage. She spent 9 years in retreat in one of Jetsun Milarepa's caves. She went to Shingdu Rinpoche's monastery and did several 3-year retreats. She embraced 3 months of Dzog Chen Munsom, a retreat in total darkness, never seeing light of any kind, totally isolated from any human contact. Devcholin followed this, subsisting on one consecrated stone a day. No food. Only one small pebble a day for 90 days. She went to Mount Kailash and circumambulated this great and holy mountain 13 times by doing full prostrations all the way around the mountain.

When the war with the Chinese broke out she heard that Shingdu Rinpoche had gone to India. She joined him and they travelled to Orissa. He settled at Dejung Rinpoche's retreat and monastery. She and her attendant built a shack in the jungle. Several years later Shingdu Rinpoche passed away.

The sun is setting golden in the camp and we join the villagers in the twilight stroll. Two old ladies pass us, prayer wheels spinning. A young mother with her baby strapped to her back holds the hand of an old man who clutches his beads, muttering his prayers intently.

Jamtrol Rinpoche's story of Ani Jetsun's death in 1979 comes to mind. He is Shingdu Rinpoche's brother and was living in the camp at the time of her death. Ani Jetsun told me one day that her attendant was getting old and it was getting difficult for her to attend to her work. 'My time has come,' Ani said, 'if I die it is a good time.' Two days later she fell ill. The next morning many of us heard voices like strange birds we had never heard before. A few hours later her attendant informed us of her passing. We went to her hut. Ani Jet sun had assumed the same posture of Shakyamuni Buddha when he died, laying on her right side, her head propped up with her right hand. Her face was the image of peace. For 3 days and 3 nights we attended the body. It remained warm, no sign of decay. It shrank somewhat. And on the day before the cremation a thin stream of red from one nostril and white from the other flowed. These are the signs of great yogic attainment.

When the fire was put to her pyre out of the spotless blue sky a gentle rain fell. Many rainbows pierced the smoke. Five enormous birds circled above until the body was completely consumed and then they vanished. They were 5 dakinis, her escorts to the pure land. In her ashes countless rigshells (precious relics) were found.

The relics were distributed among the relics of the camps. During troubled times the villagers may seek them out, confident of their power to heal and uplift. In her death as in her life Ani Jetsun Dolma radiates a wealth of blessings, the results of her dedicated practice. She was not born to greatness, the people of the camps repeatedly told me. She became great through her own efforts.

They refer to her as Rinpoche, Precious One. They cherish their memories of her and pray for her quick rebirth among them. The inspiration of her life continues to glow, white and brilliant, like her chorten in the morning sun.

The Nuns of Lobersing

Conditions in the Tibetan camps have been challenging for everyone. Most residents are managing reasonably well. Their lives may not be plush but they are becoming a bit more comfortable: wholesome food, weatherproof housing, schools for the children. However, there is one small group of nuns that still live in the most extreme poverty, students of Ani Jetsun Dolma.

These women are fiercely independent. As no one supports them on a regular basis they beg for food from door to door. As soon as they get the bare necessities they return to their hovels to retreat, study, and practice dharma. Due to their age they on occasion suffer ill health, a situation that can have tragic consequences. They have been supported from time to time by Western donors and they expressed their gratitude in the most beautiful ways. Ani Kata gave me some herb that had been under His Holiaess's the Dalai Lama's throne when he gave the Kalachakra teachings in Bodhgaya. Ani Padma brought some medicine dutsi prepared in the village. Ani Tsultrim brought a simple cotton kata that has seen many miles. We will all die soon, they told me. But seeing you is our golden chance to thank those donors who made it possible for us to continue our practice. We feel we can die peacefully now.

Sengela and his wife have been doing their best to provide food for these nuns but their resources are limited. They have 5 children to feed and school. They request donations of $10 per month for each nun. They spoke of 5 nuns. These 3 I had the privilege to meet. Please consider sending a monthly stipend for the care of these women. Let their last years be eased by your generosity. They will bless you with their prayers and love.

Contributions can be made to Karma Rimay O Sal Ling, PO Box 1029, Paia, Maui Hawaii, 96790 USA. They are tax deductible.

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Modem day Tibetan Nuns.

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