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Surya Das


Once Lama Norlha, George Birch and I were staying at Loren Standlee and Zisca Baum’s house named “Osel Ling” on Byrdcliffe, the original art colony and theater site on the hill above Woodstock, New York, where I often stayed in 1976-7. One morning Lama mentioned that he’d had “a bright dream” and his “little elephant god (Dharmapala, ally?) had pointed out that the historic old hotel atop Mt Guardian—where people including President Ulysses S Grant had stayed in the 1800’s-- was a very auspicious place for The Karmapa’s monastery to be established. So we walked over that day to look at it.

I t turned out to be for sale, and had a gorgeous rose garden too. Within months Jamgon Kongtrul Rinpoche came up to look it over, and it soon became Karma Triyana Dharmachakra—The Karmapa’s monastic seat in North America-- when Chinese philanthropist C.T. Shen donated it to the Karmapa for that purpose.

When I asked Lama about his “little elephant god”, he wouldn’t say too much, only that it was his special friend and helper.

-Surya Das



Once I was living with Lama in his hermitage-like hut up above Sonada Monastery, Darjeeling, West Bengal in 1975-6. It happened that we went to Rumtek Monastery in Sikkim with Lama and his adopted mother, Ama Yudon, and his adopted sister Pema and brother-monk Karma Chodak. We all slept in the same large guestroom at Rumtek, for several days. It was during that visit that The Karmapa asked me to accompany Lama Norlha and the other monks from Kalu Rinpoche’s monastery to foreign lands, to help them get established at the various centers recently started in Europe and North America. I went, along with the Tibetan scholar Deni Eysseric of France (Lama Denis Deundrup).

One day there was some informal photos being taken of the foreigners and special visitors with the glorious Karmapa, at the end of the porch of the temple building. His Holiness was usually very gracious and jovial about such occasions, although he could display very different moods at other times as well. Everyone present was relaxed, beaming in the Himalayan sunlight, and having a very good time. His Holiness used to call Lama Norlha by a nickname, Lama Rilly-milly (Roly-poly), always with a friendly laugh.

I wish I could find the old photo I have of us from that day with the Sixteenth Gyalwa Karmapa: Lama Norlha standing on HH’s immediate right, shoulder to shoulder, red robe to red robe, and then continuing arm in arm next to Lama on his right was myself, the lotsawa John Reynolds, and a couple of other people, including an American named Jessica or Jennifer who was wearing a chuba. All five or six of us Vajra-friends were smiling happily, blessed out-- except for Lama, who is grimacing as if in pain the moment the picture was captured.

The next day he showed me the left side of his upper body, under his arm, where there was a good-sized black and blue welt. “That’s where His Holiness was pinching me while the picture was being taken, “he exclaimed with a wry laugh. “He has strong hands!”

Ever the doubting Thomas, I asked Lama: “Didn’t it hurt? It looks terrible! Did you mind?”

Lama just laughed and said, “You boy, what a blessing! Even getting hit by His Holiness or a stone or grain of rice thrown by him can sow the seed of enlightenment.”

-Surya Das



When Lama Norlha first came to NYC, to K. Dzamling Kunchab, within the first month or so he called Chogyam Trungpa Rinpoche, in Boulder; Trinley Norbu Rinpoche, in Manhattan; Karma Thinley Rinoche, formerly a secretary of the Sixteenth Karmapa, in Toronto; and Khenchen Dezhung Rinpoche, up near Harlem on 125th Street where he lived with his brother Amchi-la Kunzang Nyima, a Tibetan doctor. Within that first year, Lama had met them all. He was especially close to Dezhung Rinpoche, who completely bowled us over by his gracious kindness and generosity as well as his erudition and complete and total devotion to the grand old yogi from Kham, our guru the Very Venerable Kalu Rinpoche (as he was called in those days).

The American yoga-style vegetarians who lived or hung around at the nascent fifth floor Dharma Center KDK on West 19th St. were a little shocked when they found Lama Norlha, Dezhung Rinpoche and his brother the doctor having a special dinner one evening, consisting of one of their favorite Kham (Eastern Tibet) delicacies, called “sha kimba”. They were eating frozen raw ribs-- purchased by themselves at the local grocery store, from the frozen meat department--along with homemade meat broth and making a grand old lama dinner party out of it, laughing and telling stories as if the broth was spiked with spirits.

And I remember thinking, “These lamas know how to live and be at home and at ease wherever they are. Even being poor, disenfranchised refugees, alone in the New World and without knowing much of the local language, they are just having the time of their lives!

And I was reminded of the story where Lord Buddha tells his right-hand monk Ananda, “Spiritual friendship is half of the holy life.”

-Surya Das