Jetsunma Ahkon Lhamo
Jetsunma Ahkon Lhamo (born October 12, 1949; born Alyce Louise Zeoli) is an enthroned tulku within the Palyul lineage of the Nyingma tradition of Tibetan Buddhism. In the late 1980s, she gained international attention as the first Western woman to be named a reincarnate lama. She continues to serve as Spiritual Director for Kunzang Odsal Palyul Changchub Choling, a Buddhist center in Poolesville, Maryland, which includes one of the largest communities of Western monks and nuns in North America. She went on to found a center in Sedona, Arizona, U.S.A. Jetsunma has been described by her own teachers, as well as many other Tibetan Buddhist lamas who have visited her temple, as a dakini or female wisdom being, and is thus viewed in that way by her students.
Zeoli was born in Canarsie, Brooklyn on October 12, 1949, to an Austrian/Dutch Jewish mother and Italian father, alternately attended the Dutch Reform Church and Catholic Church as a youth. The family moved to Hialeah, Florida when she was 14. Enduring a home life of alcoholism and physical abuse of the children, Zeoli tried unsuccessfully to run away at age 17. After finishing high school, she married Jim Perry and gave birth to her first son, Ben. The marriage soon ended in divorce and she moved to a farm outside Asheville, North Carolina with Pat Mulloy. They got married and she had another son, Christopher.
It was at that farmhouse in Asheville where, based on a series of instructive dreams starting at age 19, she began meditation practice and independent spiritual training, culminating in a spiritual experience at age 30. She studied with a New Age teacher named Jim Gore and gave channeled psychic readings at the Black Mountain Light Center in North Carolina.
Zeoli moved with Burroughs and her two sons to Kensington, Maryland. She married Burroughs in 1983 and changed her name to Catharine Burroughs. Together they formed the Center For Discovery and New Life beginning with former members from the Black Mountain Light Center. She continued to give channeled teachings from a being called Santu, the prophet Jeremiah, as well as a being named Andor.
Her group quickly expanded, with the students practicing the meditation techniques Zeoli herself practiced from her dreams, a version of Jim Gore's Light Expansion Prayer, and taking vows of compassion that Zeoli composed. The group began a 24-hour prayer vigil in the basement of their Kensington home in April, 1985 inspired by her experiences when she searched for a place to pray and found locked doors.
In 1984, Zeoli’s growing group of students met a Tibetan man named Kunzang, H. H. Penor Rinpoche's main lay attendant, who was selling rugs to support Namdroling monastery. The students sponsored seventy Namdroling monks. A few months later, H. H. Penor Rinpoche stayed with the Burroughs on his first visit to the US. During that week, he interviewed most of Jetsunma’s students, as well as Jetsunma herself, about what was being taught and what they were practicing. At the time, he concluded that Zeoli had been “teaching Mahayana Buddhism without any formal instruction” and attributed it to a very high level of practice accomplished in previous lifetimes. Penor Rinpoche then gave Jetsunma's students the traditional Refuge and Bodhisattva Vows, which constitute formal entry into the Hinayana and Mahayana Buddhist paths respectively. Rinpoche visited the meditation and prayer center operated by the Burroughs, which at the time was nonsectarian rather than Buddhist.
Thereafter Zeoli continued the channeled teachings, but they took on a more Buddhist flavor, for example gradually shifting terms such as "Christ consciousness" to "Buddha consciousness" between 1984 and 1987. Beset by health problems, she also made a trip in 1986 to Ashland, Oregon to visit Ven. Gyatrul Rinpoche, one of Penor Rinpoche’s other hosts on his American tour the previous year. She formed a “strong and immediate” connection with Gyatrul Rinpoche, himself recognized as the incarnation of Palyul Monastery’s First Throneholder, Rigdzin Kunzang Sherab. Gyatrul Rinpoche echoed the sentiment that the practices and teachings that naturally arose in Zeoli’s mind were due to many past lifetimes as a lama, and encouraged her to visit Penor Rinpoche in India to investigate the matter further.
In 1985, the Center for Discovery and New Life formed a corporation and purchased an antebellum style mansion in Poolesville, Maryland. They also purchased numerous large crystals weighing hundreds of pounds and held a three-day retreat to bring in Universal Spirit as they reinstituted the 24 hour prayer vigil at the new location. Already overextended with their new mortgage, the crystals, as well as extensive renovations in anticipation of HH Penor Rinpoche's first visit, the temple was forced to refinance.
Participants have maintained two-hour prayer shifts. The vigil is dedicated to the end of suffering and has remained largely unbroken. In 1999, Kunzang Palyul Choling (KPC) began another 24 hour prayer vigil shortly after Alyce established the Sedona, Arizona location.
In 1996, in addition to the temple, prayer vigil, teachings and stupas, Jetsunma's vision for Kunzang Palyul Choling included a place for pilgrimage with a hospice, school for children, a monastery and an institute for higher education in the Buddha's teachings. The school, called Pema Choling, ran from 1992 to 1997, and the Migyur Dorje Institute continued from 1996 through 2001.
His Holiness the Third Drubwang Padma Norbu (“Penor”) Rinpoche, 11th Throneholder of Palyul Monastery, former Supreme Head of the Nyingma tradition, described as a rather unassailable figure in Tibetan Buddhism, officially recognized Ahkon Lhamo in 1987 as the tulku of Genyenma Ahkon Lhamo during her visit to his Namdroling Monastery in Bylakuppe, Karnataka, India. As is customary, Penor Rinpoche sought confirmation of his recognition before announcing it. He received it from both His Holiness Dilgo Khyentse Rinpoche (1910–91), the then Supreme Head of the Nyingma tradition who was on a teaching visit to Namdroling at the time, and the most senior Palyul tulku, the Second Dzongnang Jampal Lodro Rinpoche (d. 8/87).
The Buddha From Brooklyn asserts that the students determine what title they will use for their own teacher and that Zeoli's ex-husband, Michael Burroughs, selected the title 'Jetsunma' for her. This is a title rarely given to even the most revered Tibetan Buddhist women teachers.
The first Genyenma Ahkon Lhamo, a meditator recognized as a primordial wisdom dakini was one of the main disciples of Terton Migyur Dorje (1645–67) and sister of Rigdzin Kunzang Sherab, Migyur Dorje’s Dharma heir and the First Throneholder of Palyul Monastery (founded 1665). She is remembered both as being instrumental in the founding of Palyul (now one of the Nyingma’s Six Mother Monasteries) and for leaving an extraordinary relic. During the cremation of her body, her kapala (top half of the skull) is said to have flown three kilometers and come to rest at the foot of the teaching throne of her brother. Found to be miraculously embossed with the sacred syllable AH, the kapala became one of the most treasured relics at Palyul monastery.
Penor Rinpoche has recounted how, as a young tulku in Tibet (he was recognized and brought to Palyul Monastery in 1936, at the age of four), inspired by seeing the skull relic, he made prayers to find Ahkon Lhamo’s incarnation. Though most of the kapala relic was pulverized into dust during the Cultural Revolution, one Tibetan man managed to save the silver dollar-size piece on which the syllable “AH” appears. Penor Rinpoche acquired it from him on a return trip to Tibet in 1987. He had it preserved in a crystal lotus and presented it to Jetsunma just prior to the occasion of her enthronement ceremony at Kunzang Palyul Choling (KPC) in 1988. The relic remains at KPC and is displayed on auspicious days (see image at right).
From June to September 1988, Penor Rinpoche was in residence at KPC in Poolesville to transmit all of the teachings contained in the Rinchen Terdzod (“Treasury of Precious Termas”), Jamgon Kongtrul Lodro Thaye’s massive 19th c. compilation of all of the extant revelations of Guru Padmasambhava’s teaching cycles known as terma. This was the first time that these teachings had ever been conferred in a Western country., According to Penor Rinpoche’s explanation at the time there is a point toward the end of the Rinchen Terdzod transmissions, during the conferral of the Vajrapani empowerment from Rigdzin Godem’s Jangter (“Northern Treasures”) cycle, where it is customary to perform enthronement of tulkus. Thus, on September 24, 1988, Penor Rinpoche conducted this ceremony for Jetsunma as the tulku of Genyenma Ahkon Lhamo. Jetsunma considers Penor Rinpoche to be her root guru, along with Ven. Gyatrul Rinpoche, Spiritual Director of Yeshe Nyingpo based in Ashland, Oregon, who is recognized as an incarnation of the first Ahkon Lhamo’s brother, Rigdzin Kunzang Sherab.
Among the more than 100 tulkus Penor Rinpoche has recognized, one of the only other Westerners was Steven Seagal. Penor Rinpoche announced at Namdroling Monastery in India in February, 1997, that Seagal was an incarnation of the 17th c. Palyul terton Chungdrag Dorje. Because of Seagal’s international renown as an action movie star, the announcement sparked numerous derisive articles in the mainstream US press and called into question both of Penor Rinpoche's American tulkus. Penor Rinpoche subsequently released an extensive public explanation describing the Tibetan tradition of tulku recognition in general, Seagal’s recognition specifically, and delineating the difference in meaning between the recognition of a tulku (Seagal’s case), in which he or she “does not take on any formal responsibilities at the time,” and the following step of enthronement (Jetsunma’s case), which “formally invests the tulku with the responsibility of furthering the activities associated with their particular tulku lineage.”
In 1994, Terton Orgyen Kusum Lingpa indicated in a long life prayer he composed that Jetsunma was an emanation of Lhacham Mandarava, the Indian princess of Zahor and one of the consorts of Padmasambhava, a tantric master who helped establish the Buddha's teaching in Tibet. In 1996, she traveled to India and visited many of the places where Mandarava was known to have practiced. Inspired by these
events, several of Jetsunma’s students sought out and found a copy of Mandarava’s middle-length spiritual biography, revealed as a terma in the 17th c. by Samten Lingpa, at the U.S. Library of Congress. They then sponsored the first English translation of the text, published as The Lives and Liberation of Princess Mandarava in 1998. Jetsunma’s connection with Mandarava was further reinforced in a long life prayer composed for her in 2004 by His Holiness Dorje Lopen Ngawang Tenzin Rinpoche, one of the most highly respected lamas in Bhutan.
24-hour prayer vigils
Jetsunma believes strongly in the transformative power of prayer. She initiated a 24-hour Prayer Vigil for World Peace in her Kensington, MD shrine room on April 18, 1985. It relocated later that year to the newly purchased World Prayer Center (now Kunzang Palyul Choling). Students engage in traditional Buddhist practices in the Nyingma tradition. In addition for the ongoing prayers for peace, members and individuals not associated with KPC request prayers be dedicated to loved ones, pets, the recently deceased, or those hit by natural disasters. Occasionally Jetsunma asks that the vigil be dedicated to specific situations. For example, the members dedicated eight months of prayer for Asia Claus, a three-year-old daughter of temple members who was suffering from her second bout of cancer. The effort concluded when doctors could find no trace of the cancer, sparking renewed media attention.
Like many Buddhist Lamas, Jetsunma has long extolled the benefits of building stupas, Buddhist reliquaries said to represent the mind of enlightenment in architectural form. Her students built one of the first large stupas in America, the 36’ Enlightenment Stupa, as an offering to Penor Rinpoche on the occasion of his conferral of the Rinchen Terdzod empowerments in 1988. Other stupas built by Jetsunma’s students include:
- The Migyur Dorje Stupa, 38’, in KPC Maryland’s Peace Park
- The Amitabha Stupa, 36’, in Sedona, AZ
- The Long Life Stupa, 18’, surrounded by eight 6’ stupas in a traditional symbolic depiction of the Eight Great Deeds of Shakyamuni Buddha
- The Ngagpa Yeshe Dorje Stupa, dedicated to the long life and swift rebirth of the renowned Nyingma yogi of the same name
- The White Tara Stupa, 6’, Sedona, AZ
- Seven other smaller stupas placed throughout KPC Maryland’s 72 acres (29 ha)
- Nine small stupas inside the main KPC Maryland temple
Hosting of important Tibetan Buddhist teachers and teachings
Jetsunma has invited and hosted many important Nyingma and Kagyu lamas and offered her centers in Maryland and Arizona as venues for their teachings, including: HH Penor Rinpoche; Ven. Gyatrul Rinpoche; HH Khenpo Jigme Phuntsok & Ani Mumtso; HH Karma Kuchen Rinpoche; Mugsang Tulku; Khentrul Gyangkhang Rinpoche; Khenchen Tsewang Gyatso; Khenchen Pema Sherab; Khenpo Namdrol; HH Ngawang Tenzin Rinpoche (Bhutan); Ven. Khenchen Palden Sherab Rinpoche & Ven. Khenpo Tsewang Dongyal Rinpoche; Chagdud Tulku Rinpoche; Ven. Yangthang Tulku; HE Taklung Tsetrul Rinpoche; HH Chetsang Rinpoche; Tulku Sangngag, Choji Rinpoche; Dzigar Kongtrul Rinpoche; Ven. Ngagpa Yeshe Dorje; HH Orgyen Kusum Lingpa; Tulku Rigdzin Pema; Bhaka Tulku; Khenpo Tenzin Norgey; and Lama Kuntuzangpo, Baasan Lama, and Lama Baasansuren (Mongolia).
In September, 1988, toward the end of Penor Rinpoche’s conferral of the Rinchen Terdzod, 25 of Jetsunma’s students underwent the traditional ordination ceremony to become monks and nuns, instantly creating one of the largest communities of ordained Westerners in the Tibetan Buddhist tradition in North America. Though some have since left their ordination or passed away, others have joined, and as of 2008 KPC’s ordained numbered 40. Mongolian Buddhism Revival Project
Growing out of a friendship with then Mongolian Ambassador Choinkhor and his wife Maijargal (Mongolians often use just one name), Jetsunma asked her students in 2004 to create the (MBRP) to help with Mongolia’s post-Communist revival of its Buddhist culture, especially the Nyingma lineage. Permanent staff was sent to Mongolia’s capital, Ulaanbaatar, in early 2005. Since that time, the MBRP has raised the funds to send many young Mongolians (men and women) to study at Penor Rinpoche’s Namdroling Monastery in India; reprinted all the fundamental collections of Nyingma scriptures that were completely missing in Mongolia and offered them to the country’s main Nyingma monastery, Khamariin Khiid; sponsored translations into modern Mongolian of philosophical texts and practice liturgies; and started a practice and study group in the capital. In June, 2009, at Jetsunma's direction, staff was removed from Mongolia.
Since 1990, KPC volunteers have been guiding inmate Buddhist groups within the Maryland State Correctional Facility system. The project began in 1990 with visits to one inmate, and grew to a formal study program in 1998. As of 2008, there were active groups in three institutions.
Migyur Dorje Institute
From 1996–2001, Jetsunma hosted the Migyur Dorje Institute of Higher Buddhist Studies (MDI). Under this program, taught by Khenchen Tsewang Gyatso, students received complete commentary teachings on classic Buddhist texts by Shantideva, Chandrakirti, Asanga, Ngari Panchen, and Mipham Rinpoche. This curriculum was supplemented by annual 30-day retreats teaching the traditional Nyingmapa sequence of the inner tantra: Ngondro, Tsa Lung, Trekchod, and Togyal. With Penor Rinpoche’s development of a similar program at the Palyul Retreat Center in McDonough, NY, the MDI program has been discontinued.
In 1990, Jetsunma announced ambitious plans to build a monastery for 500 monks and nuns on 65 acres (26 ha) of land purchased by KPC. Sixteen monks and nuns were temporarily housed in a retreat center until the monastery could be built. As reported by Mirabella magazine, by 1992, Jetsunma asked that the ordained offer the retreat center to be renovated into a Lama residence. The monastery has not yet been built though some ordained live on KPC property. Plans for a future monastery are still pending.
- Palyul Productions - records Jetsunma's teachings with the intent to preserve and disseminate them.
- Buddhist Relief - a disaster relief organization established in response to the 2005 Hurricane Katrina disaster in New Orleans. The organization is currently focused on supporting the efforts in Burma as a result of military action against monastics.
- Tara's Babies - an animal sanctuary founded in 2005 to rescue animals abandoned during the Hurricane Katrina evacuation. Initially caring for 130 dogs, the sanctuary is set in 148 acres (60 ha) of former ranch land nestled in the three-million acre (12,000 km²) Tonto National Forest near Payson, Arizona.
- Garuda Aviary - rescues macaws and many other neglected and abused parrots, based in Poolesville, Maryland.
- Blinded By View - produces Jetsunma's music.
- Ladyworks - Jetsunma designed a hair care product line which sold in The Sharper Image. In 1996 Ladyworks created a million-dollar infomercial for the products featuring Jetsunma.
- Skydancer - Jetsunma sang the lead vocal in Skydancer, a Buddhist rock group founded by Jetsunma's former husband and musician.
- Tara Studios - Tara Studios, producing small Buddhist statues, was founded in 1991 with the hopes to financially support KPC's monks and nuns.
- Chocolate Passion - A dessert company formed in 1992 also in hopes to financially support KPC's monks and nuns