Knockin’ on Heaven’s Illusory Door: Life & Death, East & West

Journey of Life & Death 001.jpgMama, take this badge off of me I can’t use it anymore. It’s getting dark, too dark to see I feel I’m knocking on heaven’s door. Knock, knock, knocking on heaven’s door. Mama, put my guns in the ground I can’t shoot them anymore. That long black cloud is coming down I feel like I’m knocking on heaven’s door. Knock, knock, knocking on heaven’s door.   Bob Dylan

Life’s journey will end in death we all know it, we all deny it, and few truly face it.

There has never been a more poignant view into the abyss than Sam Peckinpah offered in his 1973 film Pat Garrett & Billy the Kid. In the memorable scene Sheriff Garrett (James Coburn) accompanied by Sheriff Baker (Slim Pickens) and his wife (Katy Jurado) ride into an adobe homestead looking for Billy. In the ensuing gunfight Slim Pickens is mortally wounded, he staggers slowly toward the setting sun as Bob Dylan’s Knockin’ on Heaven’s Door begins playing. Katy Jurado follows as Pickens sits holding his bleeding stomach by the side of a slow moving river. No words are exchanged as Pickens and Jurado look at each other, knowing it will be the last time.

No death in history has been more analyzed and commented upon than Jesus’ death on the The Day the Revolution Began 001.jpgcross. In his new book noted Anglican theologian N.T. Wright approaches the subject anew with the question, “What would happen if, instead of seeing the resurrection (both of Jesus and of ourselves) as a kind of happy addition to an otherwise complete view of salvation, we saw it as part of its very heart?” The issue he suggests is, “That when Jesus of Nazareth died on the cross, something happened as result of which the world is a different place . . . Jesus’s crucifixion was the day the revolution began.” Well said.

Wright continues, “At the heart of it all is the achievement of Jesus as the true human being who, as the ‘image’, is the ultimate embodiment (or incarnation) of the creator God. His death, the climax of his work of inaugurating God’s kingdom on earth as it is in heaven, was the victory over the destructive powers let loose into the world not simply through human wrongdoing, the breaking of moral codes, but through the human failure to be image-bearers, to worship the Creator and reflect his wise stewardship into the world (and to be sure, breaking any moral codes that might be around, but that is not the focus).”

Wright’s examination of the many aspects of Jesus’ death is laudable. His conclusion that “Humans are made not for ‘heaven’, but for the new heavens and a new earth” is well stated.

We don’t need ‘Eschatology‘ which maps out an ultimate future (death, judgement, heaven and hell). Or ‘Atonement‘ which offers the death of Jesus as forgiveness or pardoning of our own sins through the death of Jesus. Really, as if clever philosophical phrases and arguments will guide us through our own death. The Gospel of Thomas has the proper response to these queries, don’t ask them. Focus rather on what Jesus taught. He offered us a way to navigate death successfully, we need only follow.

Reading The Day the Revolution Began I felt as if I was witnessing an effort to summarize the wide fabric of America’s culture by counting the stitches on the flag. The limits of theology are plain. The old axiom used to be if you want to convey the true experience of space flight you need to put a poet into orbit. Hence the mystic, combined with a grasp of theology the difference is palpable. To grasp the limits to Wright’s work read and compare with  SOPHIA, The Hidden Christ of Thomas Merton.

Illusory Kalu Rinpoche 001.jpgYou live in illusion and in the appearance of things. There is a reality. You are the reality. If you wake up to that reality, you will know that you are nothing, and being nothing, you are everything. That’s all. –  Kalu Rinpoche

No culture has delved as deeply into death, in all its dimensions, than Vajrayana Buddhism. Karma Rangjung Kkunkyab (Kalu Rinpoche) was one of the first master yogis entrusted by Rangjung Rigpe Dorje, the 16th Karmapa, to bring Vajrayana teachings to the west. karmapa-kalu-rinpoche-001Having entered his three year retreat for lama training at age fifteen and then spending twelve years in solitary retreat in the Himalayan mountains of Kham, Eastern Tibet, Kalu Rinpoche was an authentic master in the Kagyu tradition that dates its origin to Tilopa one thousand years ago. Rinpoche (shown here with the Karmapa in 1973) introduced the traditional three year retreat method of Jamgon Kontrul in France and then New York and Canada. Kalu Rinpoche was one of the Tibetans Thomas Merton met with shortly before his death in 1968. Their conversation is discussed in The Asian Journal of Thomas Merton.

kagy-monlam-87-copyright-drolma-birneyIn 1983  Kalu Rinpoche, as head of the Shangpa Kagyu lineage, presided over the first Kagyu Monlam (Aspiration Prayers) celebration in Bodhgaya, India. This event,  which lasted two weeks was attended by two hundred monks, nuns and lay people. The fifth monlam in 1987 lasted three weeks (shown here from left to right: Beru Khyentse Rinpoche, Situ Rinpoche, Kalu Rinpoche and Bokar Rinpoche). Many of the attendees were dedicated American lay students who also received three year retreat empowerments from Kalu Rinpoche. Lay practitioners are the the skeletal strength and backbone of any monastic system, these yogins are the ties which prevent the rails from coming apart. All structured religious systems combine appearance with illusion. The more hierarchical the more illusion, simple really, no choice. A yogi has no need of title or label.

Niguma 001.jpgActually Kalu Rinpoche’s esoteric roots were sunk in the eleventh century when a Tibetan adept named Khyungpo Naljor (Yogi of the Garuda Clan), dissatisfied with the level of experience his intensive learning had brought him, traveled to India  seeking answers. Find Niguma he was told. Niguma was a legendary rainbow bodied dakini and Naropa’s sister. Having received the teachings he sought Khyungpo Naljor was admonished to limit their transmission to one person for each of seven succeeding generations. Returning to Tibet he settled in the Shang  region and became the “Guru of Shang”, hence the Shangpa Kagyu. His lineage was revived by Jamgon Kongtrul in the late nineteenth century. Kalu Rinpoche received the teachings in the 1940’s and popularized them in the west. A distinguishing feature of advanced Tibetan Buddhist practitioners is the ability  to manifest a ‘rainbow body’, that is to dematerialize their physical form as shown in the picture of Kalu Rinpoche above. Illusory Body teachings are one of the Six Dharmas of Niguma. More on all of this can be found in Sarah Hardings excellent study, NIGUMA: Lady of Illusion. The current Kalu Rinpoche (yangsi) said about this book: Niguma is Niguma. A book is a book. If you read with discernment, however, and put what is written in practice, you just might meet Niguma face to face.Rainbow Body & Resurrection 001.jpg

The Catholic Benedictine monk Brother David Steindl-Rast, who has a Ph.D. in experimental psychology and studied Zen Buddhism for many years, became interested in the phenomena of rainbow bodies. He requested one of his students, Father Francis V. Tiso, formerly Associate Director of the Secretariat for Ecumenical and Interreligious Affairs of the US Conference of Catholic Bishops, to investigate the relationship between the Buddhist tradition and Christianity, Rainbow Body and Resurrection explains Father Tiso’s findings. This is one of the most interesting efforts ever to explore spiritual phenomena and science without shortchanging either camp. Well done, and thanks to Brother Stendl-Rast and Father Tiso.

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When our flights of theology and rainbow dynamics have left us winded and wondering, what does this all do to improve the lot of suffering humanity, we can look to the answer provided by the author of War and Peace, Leo Tolstoy. He wrote The Kingdom of God is Within You after meditating on the life of Jesus and the failure of the Russian Orthodox Church to live up to the challenges Jesus laid down. The book was published in Germany after being banned in Russia. Tolstoy laid down the guidelines by which Gandhi and Martin Luther King revolutionized society. Tolstoy developed the radical concept of putting the words of Jesus into direct action. We allow tyranny only when we don’t confront it. Gandhi said The Kingdom of God is Within You was one of the three most important influences in his life.

Albert Schweitzer was a noted ProtestantAlbert Schweitzer - Strasbourg 001.jpg theologian, classical concert organist, pastor of St. Nicholas church and principal of St. Thomas College in Strasbourg, then in Germany. He was completing work on the book which would revolutionize contemporary views on Jesus, The Quest of the Historical Jesus and a critical analysis of Johann Sebastian Bach that led to the composer’s influence we feel today. Yet, he felt unfulfilled, he was describing faith not living it.

Let us see how Schweitzer himself describes his evolution. One brilliant summer morning at Gunsbach as I awoke, the thought came to me that I must not accept this good fortune as a matter of course, but must give something in return. While outside the birds sang I reflected on this thought, and before I had gotten up I came to the conclusion that until I was thirty I could consider myself justified in devoting myself to scholarship and the arts, but after that I would devote myself to serving humanity. I had already tried many times to find the meaning that lay hidden in the saying of Jesus: “Whoever would save his life shall lose it, and whosoever shall lose his life for My sake and the Gospels shall save it.” What the character of my future activities would be was not yet clear to me. I left it to chance to guide me. Only one thing was certain, that it must be direct human service, however inconspicuous its sphere.

One morning in the autumn of 1904 I found on my writing table in the seminary one of the green-covered magazines in which the Paris Missionary Society reported on its activities every month. Without paying much attention, I leafed through the magazine. As I was about to turn to my studies, I noticed an article with the headline “The Needs of the Congo Mission”. The author complained that the mission did not have enough people to carry on its work in the Gabon, the northern province of the Congo colony. The writer expressed the hope that his appeal would bring some of those “on whom the Master’s eyes already rested” to a decision to offer themselves for this urgent work. The article concluded: “Men and women who can reply simply to the Master’s call, “Lord, I am coming, those are the people the church needs.” I finished my article and quietly began my work. My search was over.

In a stunning act of faith and devotion Albert Scweitzer resigned his various positions and began a seven year course of study which resulted in his receiving a medical degree. His medical dissertation fittingly enough was, The Psychiatric Study of Jesus.

Scweitzer’s decision to embark on a medical career with the stated purpose of venturing to Equatorial Africa was met with outrage and derision by his friends and family. Again, in Albert and Helene Schweitzer 001.jpgSchweitzer’s own words: I had assumed that familiarity with the sayings of Jesus would give a much better comprehension of what to popular logic is not rational. Several times, indeed, my appeal to the obedience that Jesus’ command of love requires under certain circumstances earned me an accusation of conceit. How I suffered to see so many people assuming the right to tear open the doors and shutters of my inner self!

Albert Schweitzer was not alone. As is so often the case he was accompanied on his journey by an extraordinary woman, Helene Bresslau. (Photos from Schweitzer; A Biography) She was the one person who understood and supported his decision. Her family in Berlin was Jewish but converted to Christianity and moved to Strasbourg to avoid persecution. When Schweitzer made his decision to attend medical school she quit her job at an orphanage and studied nursing. They married in 1912 and on Good Friday in 1913 set out for Lambaréné, Gabon.

Following the Enlightened Mind path of Niguma and the Sacred Heart teachings of Jesus we can embark forward in the 21st Century marrying the complimentary visions of Buddhism and Christianity to establish God’s Kingdom on Earth as it is in Heaven. You can’t do Christ from the couch!

The Passion of the Christ by Mel Gibson

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KAGYU IMAGES: The Lion’s Roar

Sukhasiddhi                                                                   Niguma

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Rangdrol 001The Kagyu (Lineage of Transmitted Mastery) began with the songs of Dakini’s calling to Tilopa one thousand years ago. Thus began a remarkable odyssey transmitted from Master to Disciple unto this present age. The teachings of the dakini, revealing the nature of mind, are couched in their secret speech: ‘secret’ in the sense of self-secret, naturally discreet, because it only makes sense to those sufficiently awakened to understand. Their discrete terms reveal jnana, the bright lamp of essence-awareness which automatically dispels the darkness of ignorance. — from TILOPA by Tai Situ Rinpoche, perhaps the ultimate Dakini Realm instruction manual, published by Kagyu Samye Ling, Eskdalemuir, Scotland, the first Tibetan Buddhist center in the West.

Kalu - Karmapa - Trungpa 001Three remarkable Kagyu Masters ushered the Dharma westward in the twentieth century. Kalu Rinpoche, the 16th Karmapa, Rangjung Rigpe Dorje and Chögyam Trungpa.

Jamgon Kontrul 001Situ Rinpoche 001Two Heart Sons followed close behind. Jamgon Kongtrul and Tai Situ Rinpoche have forged close bonds with Western students. Bringing traditional teachings along with a strong command of Enlish these teachers have assured the survival of Tilopa’s legacy.

Dusu, Khyempa - 17th Karmapa 001Today the Kagyu Lineage is identified with Karmapa, the Black Hat Lama. The First Karmapa, Dusum Khyenpa pictured above on the left was one of three wild yogis who studied under Gampopa, who instituted the monastic tradition that exists to this day. Dusum Khyenpa and his companions were expelled for consuming alcohol and dancing wildly in celebration of a Dakini festival. Gampopa realized his most talented students had been expelled by the master of discipline when he saw the birds flying away from his monastery and the dakas and dakinis departing. He left his retreat cave and chased after the three yogis imploring them to stay.

Dusum Khyenpa 001Dusum Khyenpa eventually became known as Karmapa, Knower of the Three Times, Man of Action. Many miraculous events are associated with Dusum Khyenpa but none more incredible than the letter he left detailing where he would be reborn. Thus Karma Pakshi became the first incarnate lama in Tibet. This sequence has repeated itself now seventeen times. Before Rangjung Rigpe Dorje died in 1981 he left an amulet with Tai Situ Rinpoche. The prediction letter within the amulet led to the discovery of Orgyen Trinley Dorje born in Tibet in 1985.

KarmapakshiThe Second Karmapa, Karma Pakshi, above, born in 1204, set the standard for intensive mystical mastery we expect of Karmapas. Caught between the demands of conflicting Chinese rulers, Karmapakshi was forced to drink poison, thrown off a cliff and into flames by Kublai Khan. Each time he emerged unharmed forcing the Emperor to recognize his ultimate nobility. While in China he arranged for a giant Buddha statue to be constructed at his monastery, Tsurphu near Lhasa. Upon his return to Tibet he discovered the statue was leaning to one side. He sat in meditation in front of it and, imitating the statue, he leaned to the side. As he slowly righted himself, the statue straightened along with him. (photo by Lawrence Birney)

BELOW – 14th Dalai Lama, Tenzin Gyatso w/ 16th Karmapa (left) & 17th Karmapa (right)

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Karmapa 16 & 17 001The 16th Karmapa, Rangjung Rigpe Dorje and the 17th, Orgyen Trinley Dorje.

Sangye Tenzin Rinpoche, a great and wonderful teacher of the Dharma (below), of Kham, Tibet with the 17th Karmapa. Sangye Tenzin was a veritable wellspring of information and inspiration to all those who came in contact with him. He shone with a genuine desire that all of his students truly ‘get it’, that we appreciate the wish fulfilling gift which he was bestowing on us. His presence was a Rain of Blessing.

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The most pronounced quality of the Kagyu is the relationship between students and master which is passed on from one lifetime to the next, each recognizing the other. Situ & Karmapa 001Tai Situ (far reaching, unshakeable) Rinpoche is the root lama of the Karmapa. He was the one given the letter by Rangjung Rikpe Dorje that led to the discovery of the 17th Karmapa. Here they are shortly after their reunion in a wonderful photo from Ken Holmes’ book Karmapa that details the entire chain of events. Ken is a long time student of the Karmapa and Situ Rinpoche and has lived and taught at Samye Ling in Scotland for many years. He has edited the classic books by Situ Rinpoche published there. He and his wife Katia have also translated Dharma texts.

Situ & Kalu 001Kalu Rinpoche, a meditation master who lived from 1905 to 1989, was instrumental in training many young incarnate lamas. After studying under the 11th Situ Rinpoche, Padma Wangchuk, he helped train the current Situ Rinpoche, Pema Donyo Nyingche Wangmo. They are shown here together shortly after the Tibetan diaspora in 1959. Kalu Rinpoche spent many years in solitary retreat in the Himalayas before the Karmapa asked him to visit the West and teach the Dharma. Homage to Kalu Rinpoche 001He first established a traditional three year retreat program in France. His life story is well told in The Chariot for Travelling the Path to Freedom by Ken McLeod. The drawings of Tilopa and the dakinis Sukhasiddhi and Niguma are from this book which is a must have for Kalu Rinpoche students. Homage to Khyab Je Kalu Rinpoche published by Lama Lodu and KDK Publications in San Francisco is another must. The wonderful photo of Kalu Rinpoche, the Karmapa and Chögyam Trungpa is from this book.

Yangsi Kalu Rinpoche was born September 17, 1990. He was recognized by Situ Rinpoche and made his first visit to the United States in 1995.Bokar & Kalu 001 I was part of the welcoming party when he arrived at Kennedy Airport with his former student, then teacher, Bokar Rinpoche. I had met the previous Kalu Rinpoche and received one empowerment from him. My faith in Situ Rinpoche was complete, but I was apprehensive meeting the new Kalu Rinpoche. After all, we were there to welcome a four year old boy. This was my first experience meeting a young tulku. When they walked through customs the hairs on my arm stood on end. I realized that THIS ACTUALLY WAS KALU RINPOCHE. Kalu & Bokar dancing 001

No experience to date can match that for confirming the authenticity of Vajrayana teachings. The next month was magical. Bokar Rinpoche gave many teachings and transmissions from the Shangpa Kagyu tradition, and we also shared Kalu Rinpoche’s joy at having a fresh young body. Since the previous Kalu Rinpoche had projected such a stern exterior, albeit with an inner radiance and glow, this new incarnation was a fresh bloom on the rose. (Yangsi Kalu Rinpoche photos by my friend and construction collaborator, Steve Petty from Salt Spring Island.)

Bokar & Kalu marmekan 001In 2011, Kalu Rinpoche visited the United States for the first time since completing his formal training. Unfortunately, he chose not to visit New York. Therefore many devoted students who were closely connected to the previous Kalu Rinpoche were unable to see him during that visit. Hopefully, he will return to the US soon and give teachings in New York at his monastery or anywhere else that he feels is appropriate. In fact, I extend an invitation to teach at my home anytime he would like.

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Chögyam Trungpa was a phenomenon. Arriving at Cambridge University from India in the mid-sixties, he perfected his English, learned Western psychology and mastered the culture. After founding Samye Ling in Scotland with Akong Rinpoche he moved on to America, and we are so thankful that he did. Trungpa was a tireless teacher until his death in 1987. He authored close to thirty books which have had a wide impact in introducing Vajrayana to the West. His first book BORN IN TIBET was published in 1966. I read it in the early 70’s. It set me on (as of now) a forty year cascade through the most powerful mental training system on the planet.

The lion’s roar is fearlessness in the sense that every situation in life is workable. Nothing is rejected as bad or grasped as good. But everything we experience in our life-situations, any type of emotion, is workable. From THE MYTH OF FREEDOM.

DRAGON THUNDER: My Life With Chögyam Trungpa by Diana Mukpo, his wife of nearly twenty years, is one of the most enjoyable reads I’ve had in a long time. This is an entertaining view behind the roller coaster carnival of Trungpa’s life. DRAGON THUNDER IS A MUST READ! Chögyam Trungpa: His Life and Vision by Fabrice Midal offers a thoughtful and complete review of Trungpa’s work.

Shambhala was an enlightened society that manifested nonagression. Its geographical location was in the middle of Asia, in the middle, or the heart, of the Orient. The Shambhala society was able to transmute aggression into love. Consequently, everybody in Shambhala attained enlightenment. So they no longer needed to domesticate their animals, and they no longer needed to fight wars. Finally, the whole society, the whole country — including all the buildings — ceased to exist on the earthly plane. This is the story of Shambhala. — Chögyam Trungpa from Midal’s book.

Above all, Trungpa championed the ideal of Shambhala and presented it to the West. fShambhala is a Pure Land, a beyul, the home of the sacred Kalachakra teachings, the Highest Tantra vehicle. In a novel written with my wife Angelina, the  Shambhala teachings are highlighted through a fictional journey which explores their current need in creating peace in the world. PURE VISION: The Magdalene Revelation encourages a closer look at the spiritual forces that infuse the world’s political battles.

Trungpa’s genius manifested itself in many ways, but none more impressive or lasting than the creation of Naropa University in 1974. Today it is a thriving liberal arts college boasting among other accomplishments, The Jack Kerouac School of Disembodied Poetics. The university was named after Naropa, who was the illustrious abbot of Nalanda in eleventh century India. After an encounter with a powerful Dakini, Naropa recognized his knowledge was useless without wisdom. The Dakini empowered Naropa to seek her brother Tilopa who straightens Naropa out, so to speak.

Our story began with Tilopa, or rather with the Dakini’s call to Tilopa. Feminine Wisdom is mother of the Buddhas. Without the discrete terms of the dakini, teachings revealing mind, the lamp of essence awareness dispelling ignorance’s darkness, known of itself, occurring by itself and lucid in itself cannot be recognized — From Situ Rinpoche’s TILOPA as is the calligraphy below.discrete terms of dakini 001Tilopa’s Kagyu oral transmission lineage sprang from the discrete terms of the Dakini, Mahamudra, The Great Seal, Wisdom Beyond Knowledge. The punishing apprenticeship he put Naropa through is the stuff of legend. Naropa passed his lineage on to Marpa who carried the teaching to Tibet, he himself undertook three arduous  journeys to India to obtain his treasures. Milarepa, the poet-yogi, earned his mantle through another epic apprenticeship. Gampopa, guru to Dusum Khyenpa, the First Karmapa, studied under Milarepa.

Tilopa’s teachings are summed up in The Ganges Mahamudra, which he emparted to Naropa on the banks of the great river. There are numerous commentaries and translations of this root text but my favorite is found in MOTHER OF THE BUDDHAS by Lex Hixon. Hixon was a great contributor to our modern spiritual dialogue. Born on Christmas Day 1941, he began his studies with Vine Deloria, a Lakota Sioux elder, at the age of nineteen. Six years later he began studying with Swami Nikhilananda, a disciple of Sarada Devi, Ramakrishna’s wife. Hixon’s epic work on Ramakrishna, GREAT SWAN, is brilliant. It is always worth recalling Ramakrishna, as his life in nineteenth century Bengal is an open mirror to Tilopa’s eleventh century India.

Mother of the Buddhas 001Great Swan 001The dedicated practitioner experiences the spiritual way as a turbulent mountain stream, tumbling dangerously among boulders. When maturity is reached the river flows smoothly and patiently with the powerful sweep of the Ganges.  Emptying into the ocean of Mahamudra, the water becomes ever-expanding light that pours into great Clear Light – without direction, destination, division, distinction or description.  Tilopa – Mother of the Buddhas.

The Kagyu lineage web has been spun by generations of students standing upon the shoulders of their teachers, who in turn became the students in their next life. A story line like this could only continue with the ability to identify these departed masters upon their return.

Jamgon Kontrul - 16 Karmapa 001The third Jamgon Kongtrul, pictured at left with the 16th Karmapa, was universally loved by all who met him. I had the great honor of taking the Kalachakra and Shitro empowerments from him. His death in 1992, at the height of the search for the 17th Karmapa, was a shock to the entire Vajrayana community.

There is no more serious task for any Karmapa than orchestrating the search mission for incarnate lamas. In 1996 the 17th Karmapa informed representatives of Pullahari Monastery that he had information concerning the rebirth of Jamgon Kongtrul. At the moment the Karmapa handed over the letter containing his instructions, there was a single clap of thunder. The Karmapa himself was only eleven years old at that time!

The Karmapa indicated that the 4th Jamgon Kongtrul would be found south of Tsurphu, the E MA HO 001Karmapa’s seat in Tibet. In his exercise book he drew some pictures of the mountains, a river and the house (two storeys with the door facing exactly east) where he would be found.  The Karmapa also mentioned by name several nearby villages and the number of persons in the family (eight). He even informed them of the most auspicious day to begin their search, several months hence. Even so, there were difficulties with the search and the party had to return to Tsurphu for clarification. Perhaps, their faith in an untested eleven year old Karmapa was shaky. The Karmapa seemed to toy with them and merely repeated his instructions. On their return to the area, the group found the fourth Jamgon Kongtrul. The entire story can be found online in E MA HO.

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(left) The Karmapa, Urgyen Trinley Dorje and the Fourth Jamgon Kongtrul, Karma Lodro Chokyi Nyima in 1996. Jamgon Kongtrul today and Tai Situ Rinpoche (above).

As Tilopa promised, the Kagyu lineage will continue to bring a great deal of both temporal and ultimate benefit to the world.

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