Allison Choying Zangmo is a student of Anyen Rinpoche and his root master, Tsara Dharmakirti Rinpoche. She has been studying dharma and the Tibetan language under Anyen Rinpoche’s personal guidance for the past sixteen years, and acts as his personal translator. She works diligently for both Orgyen Khamdroling, a Buddhist meditation center in Denver, Colorado, and the Phowa Foundation, as well as composing books and translations of traditional texts & sadhanas with Anyen Rinpoche. She spends a portion of each year in retreat. Although she never had any wish to teach dharma in the West, based on encouragement by Anyen Rinpoche, Tulku Rolpai Dorje and Khenpo Tashi, she began teaching the Dharma under Anyen Rinpoche’s guidance in 2017.
Stella Bonnie of The Yogini Project team had an opportunity to meet with Allison Choying Zangmo at Orgyen Khamdroling and speak about her life with Anyen Rinpoche, her work for the Sangha of Orgyen Khamdroling and how she had come to take on responsibility to teach Dharma in the West.
The Yogini Project: How did you meet Anyen Rinpoche?
Allison Choying Zangmo: Rinpoche and I met in Nepal when I was 24. At that time I had been in Nepal for about six months and I was learning Tibetan by living in a Khampa family’s one room apartment and sleeping on their kitchen table at night. They didn’t speak English. When I met Rinpoche, he had just come from Tibet and he didn’t speak English, so we were communicating in this very low-level way and also using a dictionary to communicate a lot. It was a Chinese-English-Tibetan dictionary because sometimes Tibetan is not a good language to use and Chinese actually works better. It’s like how English is actually a business language; it is not really a spiritual language. Tibetan is this very spiritual language that doesn’t always communicate worldly things that well.
TYP: Did you know from the beginning that this was how your life was going to go with him?
ACZ: It’s a funny story. Rinpoche and I were in Dharamsala, India, probably the following summer, when he listed off his vision of the future to me. One day we were taking a walk and then Rinpoche said, this is what we are going to do. And he just named everything, one after another — for the rest of our lives this is the plan. I don’t think he ever said “you’ll be a religious and a cultural translator,” but certainly being the role model for his students, being able to master practices, being able to translate, being able to establish a Dharma center. When I was at the statue consecration last year I said to people, “So many of the things that are here right now are here because on that day Rinpoche said, ‘This is what you need to do.'”
He had that vision right from the very beginning. I’m always trying to catch up to him. Rinpoche can see everything in this really vast way and I’m always just following along with him and then, you know, years later thinking, “Oh, that’s why Rinpoche wanted to do that.” I don’t always understand it. It takes a lot of trust and a lot of work to accomplish a lama’s vision because they see so much more than we do.
I think even though Rinpoche didn’t tell me until maybe a year after we met, he already had everything planned from, I think, the day that we met. I’m almost certain. He said that the day that we met he knew we had the karma to practice the dharma together and I think that he planned it from that moment.
TYP: Were there times when you had doubts? I imagine as a women raised in America and meeting this man who tells you he knows everything about your life and this is how it’s going to go…Was there ever a part of you that wanted to rebel against that?
ACZ: No. I never had that. It’s hard to explain, but until I met Rinpoche I never felt like I really connected with another human being. I never really felt comfortable with any human being. And then I met Rinpoche and we had such a hard time communicating. We didn’t speak the same language very well, and not only that, but he was so intense and being in his presence at that time was really exhausting. I can remember the first few years that we were married it was a lot of effort just to be with Rinpoche, to match his energy or connect with him. There were a lot of obstacles and difficulties to connect, but at the same time, I felt like Rinpoche understood me, and understood parts of me that I had never been able to connect with anyone about.
And so, when he said those things, it seemed really natural to me. I thought, “You know, things aren’t really going that well in America, and no one relates to me in America.” So I felt like Rinpoche just saw the way that my life could go and that I didn’t need to worry about it because it made sense. Rinpoche made sense to me.
TYP: It sounds like the way you describe your confidence in Rinpoche and your confidence in your own capacity are intertwined.
ACZ: Actually, for a long time Rinpoche was really the one that had a lot of confidence in my capacity. Rinpoche always said to me, “You know, at a certain point you need to start staying in retreat, you need to start teaching the Dharma.” He’s been saying these things to me for years. We’ve been together for 18 years, and he’s probably been saying this for at least for 15 or 16 years.
I never wanted to teach Dharma. I think it’s a huge responsibility to guide people. You have to know so much and you have to be so sure that you’re not guiding somebody incorrectly. But Rinpoche has been very sure about it. I’ve always had the confidence in him. I didn’t have confidence in myself, but Rinpoche had that confidence in me and then I think slowly over time I could see things more the way he saw them and I could see more that in order for Rinpoche to root the Dharma the way he wants to, he needs me to do it. So, I guess it’s kind of nice to be able to rely on his confidence or his vision, to see things the way he does rather than having to be stuck in thinking “I don’t think I’m a person who is suitable to that.” Rinpoche doesn’t really have those preconceptions.
TYP: How long had you been studying with him and studying Tibetan before you met his teacher, Tsara Dharmakirti Rinpoche?
ACZ: I met Rinpoche in 1999, and I’d only been studying Tibetan for a few months. And then we moved to Japan about a year and a half later, so at that point I was speaking Tibetan much better because we were speaking every day and we lived in the same country, which was good. Then in 2002 I met his teacher, Tsara Dharmakirti Rinpoche. Rinpoche sent me there to receive Longchen Nyingthig empowerments and transmissions and I did not speak his dialect very well at all. It was hard for me to understand him, but the experience of meeting him really blew me away. Rinpoche made me do a lot of practice to be allowed to go. I don’t remember, maybe I had to recite 500,000 recitations of Benza Guru and then I switched to the Seven Line Prayer.
After I met him for the first time, I had to practice my Ngondro before I could go back the second time, so I was very motivated to accomplish practice quickly. Also, he was already 88 years old when I met him, so I knew there wasn’t a lot of time. Because we lived in Japan, it was really close to fly to China and then go to Tibet. I was able to study with him fairly closely for about five years and to see him at least twice a year, sometimes three times a year. I was one of the last students that he accepted, so I feel it was really fortunate and I definitely feel that part of the karma that I had when I met Rinpoche was to become Tsara Dharmakirti’s student. I feel very connected with both of them.
I remember one of the last times I saw Tsara Dharmakirti Rinpoche he said to me,
You should never have any doubts about Anyen Rinpoche. Being with him is the same as being with me. We are the same being, and when I’m not here, you should never have any doubts about studying the dharma or practicing the dharma. He’ll guide you perfectly.
I remember that exchange. Not that I wouldn’t have had that same confidence, but I remember being given that instruction from him.
TYP: Is there anything in particular you remember about meeting him?
ACZ: I was completely unprepared for the experience of meeting him because the experience of his realization was something that I didn’t know existed. I remember walking in the room to do prostrations and almost feeling like I was going to fall over. The experience of the loving feeling of his energy, like it wasn’t just his realization but the actual feeling of Bodhichitta, I can remember feeling, “That’s what Bodhicitta is.” I felt he loved me so much, like I was his daughter. He would give me food. He would be eating and he would feed me from his plate. He was so loving.
He was a very special master. I can remember meeting Gyatrul Rinpoche for the first time and Gyatrul Rinpoche said to me, “You’re so lucky. Your root lama is a living Buddha.” I mean, he was such a revered master and such a realized master. I don’t think I can ever forget that feeling and I think that feeling of devotion and of his wisdom always carries me through. I never have doubts about practice because I always just think, I know no matter how hard I practice, if I practice hard enough I know what the result is. I don’t have any doubt about it. I feel like a really lucky person because I’m a person without a lot of doubts.
TYP: Did you have models of women that were achieving that level of realization, who showed you that there’s no difference or no obstacle there?
ACZ: I think I have to actually credit my father for that. My family members are not dharma practitioners and they don’t really understand what I’m doing. Sometimes Rinpoche said, “Why were you born into that family? I don’t understand that.” But I am actually really close with my father. And I think my father always raised me to think that I’m as good or as talented, as intelligent as any man. He never, I don’t think he ever distinguished that. And he raised me to think that way.
Maybe the fact that I never had those thoughts is because of that kind of upbringing. My father is, if you ever meet him, he’s exceedingly confident and talented and brilliant. And he just raised me to think that I was like he was. It was never anything that I thought about as a child, although I do see that in our culture that perhaps other females don’t have that kind of upbringing or that kind of parenting. Anyen Rinpoche also doesn’t think that way. He pushes me really hard. Incredibly hard.
TYP: I know you have a reputation for being incredibly hard working. There are so many wonderful things that students here have to say about you, but mostly I hear students talk about how hard you are working, ceaselessly doing something, accomplishing things, going through practices, and that it is very inspirational.
ACZ: I don’t think I have a lot of good qualities. I think I’m hard to get along with. I don’t feel like I’m naturally good with people, so that’s the reason for a lot of my resistance to wanting to teach the dharma because…it’s so hard to change your personality.
But I do have the quality of being exceedingly hard working. I always have been. But, I also have a lot of natural discipline and that is a wonderful quality that I can rely on. Rinpoche just piles work on me, and I wouldn’t actually say that Rinpoche expects me to accomplish more practice than I do. It’s just that he tells me to do something and I just do it. And I’ve always felt that if I just do whatever Rinpoche asks, the result will be really good.
TYP: What has been created here at Orgyen Khamdroling is amazing, and obviously didn’t happen effortlessly and overnight. What has been the hardest thing about creating and maintaining the center and the community?
ACZ: I was raised Catholic and I was part of a church and a community when I was younger, and in fact my experience with the Catholic church shapes a lot of the way that I run this center. In the Catholic Church, [regardless of] whatever faults it has, there is a great sense of everyone contributing. We were all always there making a pancake breakfast or collecting food or working in a soup kitchen, or cleaning, whatever it was. Everyone was there and everyone was participating and everyone felt like it was their job to participate. [People understood that] this is everyone’s church; everyone needs to be responsible for it, like it’s your own home.
A lot of people who come to the dharma didn’t grow up with religion and have never experienced what it’s like to be part of a community and that sense of taking responsibility for the group and for the actual space and the finances and everything. It’s not natural and that has to be taught. So actually teaching people was the hardest thing. From the time that we said we were going to buy a center to the point at which we bought the center and then after we bought the center, I sort of watched Rinpoche instruct the sangha almost like a parent: “We’re working on this project. Everyone needs to be here; somebody needs to cook; somebody needs to clean up.”
And then another really big challenge has to do with making financial contributions. Again, part of the Christian tradition and part of the Tibetan tradition is that people understand that their financial support has to be given in order to maintain a center or a community and that it is for everyone’s use. Also, for the future — it’s for future Buddhists and people we are going to connect with 20 or 50 or 100 years from now. It’s not just about what we’re doing right now; it has a bigger vision.
TYP: I’ve heard a lot of masters say that if you’re really committed to attaining realization and the ultimate result of practice in this life, then you should stay with your teacher. So for ordinary people, people with jobs and everything, how is that possible to stay with the lama, to follow the example of the masters of the past?
ACZ: Well, I have a great answer for you, but it’s not going to be an easy answer. You know, in my experience, what I see Rinpoche trying to teach students to do is to make the decision to put the Dharma first and it is a very, very difficult decision to make. I mean, at my level of being Rinpoche’s wife and his example, whatever Rinpoche tells me to give up, whether I think culturally it is ok with me or not, whatever it is, I give it up. I mean, it’s a struggle. But Rinpoche says, if you can’t give up, for example, that tendency or that part of your personality or that preference you have or whatever it is, you’re not going to be able to put the Dharma first. Putting the Dharma first is this unlimited act of giving up yourself. It’s fundamentally giving up everything that you believe in, or think, “This is what I need to live.” I can really say that.
But I think that even not at my level, I see other students in our Sangha and Rinpoche is still challenging them to put the Dharma first. It’s hard for people to make that decision, there are all these other things going on. I think the biggest thing that Americans struggle with are family and relationships. Say your partner is not Buddhist, sooner or later you’re going to come to a place where you say, “I want to put the Dharma first and its going to ruin my marriage.” That’s happened to people here in the sangha and some of them have stayed in their marriage and left the Sangha; some of them have left their marriage. That happens. It’s a personal choice.
I think though that no matter where you are, you’re starting wherever you are. It doesn’t matter, but it’s always about making those decisions: “How do I put Dharma first?” The capacity to put Dharma first grows the more you practice and the more devotion that you have. The more devotion you have, the more willing you are to say, “I don’t need that thing that I thought I needed. All I need is Dharma. Dharma is the thing that makes me happy. Dharma is the thing that ceases my suffering.” Whether we’re Tibetan or American, male or female, it doesn’t matter. If we can’t put the Ddharma first, our practice is limited.
TYP: So from your point of view then, there is no issue that we’re not immersed in shedra and that more traditional form of Dharma?
ACZ: I think that would be wonderful, but I don’t think the Dharma is limited in that way. I think that Dharma is incredibly adaptable. Dharma itself is adaptable and the lamas are adaptable. It’s up to the students, though, to be willing to make that commitment and to realize that they’re the ones who are limiting themselves. It’s not like the Dharma needs to adapt more to Western culture or the lamas need to treat us more like we are Americans. I hear that, “We need American Dharma.” It’s not about American Dharma. It’s about, “Am I willing to give up myself?” And it’s that way in any culture; it doesn’t matter.
TYP: It seems like now you’ve stepped into this role of being a teacher, is that correct?
ACZ: Yeah, that happened that year. Rinpoche wanted me to start teaching. I started teaching “Dying with Confidence” with him and it’s actually been really fun. Also, I taught in Mexico with him this year. I think Rinpoche feels like it’s easy for the audience to connect with me… one thing about teaching Dharma is that you always have to work hard to make a connection with people. So if you can make a connection more easily, it can be more powerful for everybody. And when you are teaching and people connect, it feels good. You feel motivated and you feel like you can maybe make an impression or maybe they’ll take something back that really helps them. It’s really gratifying, you know, to work hard.
Actually, Tulku Dakyong, who was here last year, and Khenchen Tashi Dondrup, who is coming this year, have also both really encouraged me to start teaching… and I think Tsara Dharmakirti always had that vision for me as well.
TYP: Is there anything that you have a special aspiration to teach or that you’re very enthusiastic to achieve?
ACZ: I have two major aspirations for American Dharma specifically. First, the Rigdzin Dupa Drupchen is a great aspiration of mine. That’s a practice that I’ve been doing for so many years and that was given to me directly by Tsara Dharmakirti Rinpoche. The fact that we are being able to start that practice is accomplishing one of my major aspirations and, of course, Rinpoche’s aspiration, but I have a special aspiration for this practice.
And the second one is the Mindroling Vajrasattva Drupchen. We do this at the shedra every year in Kham and it’s an extremely complicated ritual practice. In Tibet, I have experienced it as a practice of immense blessings, and I think that in America we need this kind of purification so much. It’s so difficult for us to even feel the blessings of the dharma or of the teachings and we really feel the blessings of Vajrasattva practice, especially in this kind of drupchen environment. [If we do this] I think people can see the dharma in a different way and I think the land, physically our land and the neighborhood, needs this kind of practice.
TYP: I’m very surprised by your answer. I feel like that’s a very unusual aspiration. Is that something from the very beginning that you were on board with ritual?
ACZ: I was never onboard or off-board. When I first had a Yidam practice I just did it because Rinpoche told me to. I was fine with it, I didn’t care. But I think the difference is that from the point of view of my practice now, I can really see… so Americans have this great aspiration to connect with the Dzogchen teachings and they really can’t do it. What they don’t understand is that with ritual practice there are all these incredible methods to prepare the mind for that and especially the purification of Vajrasattva and the great blessings of Rigdzin Dupa. I mean, these two practices really can raise your capacity to practice the higher tantric teachings.
TYP: Can you please tell about the Khandro statues and if there’s any significance of those female bodies coming here.
ACZ: The first thing is that the name of our Dharma center is Orgyen Khamdroling, which is, of course, Padmasambhava’s Dakini Pureland, so the Dakinis have to be here because that’s the name of the center! You know, I don’t know that I think of the Dakinis as being a female embodiment as much as they’re my role model in that they just carry out whatever Padmasambhava asks them to do. Maybe it’s incidental that they are female in a certain way.
From the point of view of Mantrayana, of course males and females, there are many special practices and transmissions that can be bestowed because you’re a female. But on the other hand, they’re carrying out Padmasambhava’s aspirations and they’re making it possible for the sangha to gather and they’re making it possible to have this space where we practice together, so I think that they need to be here. I mean, right here I’m looking at Mandarava and she’s holding the tse bum, the long life vase, and she’s extending the Lama’s life. If Lama’s can’t carry out their dharma activity, they won’t have longevity. So, it’s the responsibility of these khandros, these female wisdom beings, to extend the life of the teacher, to make dharma possible, to make transmitting the dharma possible.
TYP: It sounds like you are more invested in their activity than whether or not they have a female body.
ACZ: Well, I don’t know that I care that Padmasambhava has a male body. It’s just the way that I see things. I think it’s the connection and it’s the dependent arising. The fact that Yeshe Tsogyal and Mandarava could completely give themselves to Padmasambhava is what made his enlightened activity possible. But, from the point of view of their realization, they were just all the same being. They all shared one enlightened mind and they had an aspiration to appear and to express certain qualities to benefit the dharma. So, from that point of view, I don’t think it makes that much difference to me.
But of course, from the view of myself wanting to replicate and follow in the footsteps of Yeshe Tsogyal, accomplishing the dharma and bringing the dharma here to this center and extending Rinpoche’s life, of course I can relate to her as being a female.
TYP: Do you think that the activity that you’re doing would be possible if you weren’t a female?
ACZ: Of course, there’s a manner in which the Dharma is transmitted that can only happen because I’m Rinpoche’s consort. Yes, absolutely. But I think another thing is that, especially when I was younger, from a more ordinary point of view, because I loved Rinpoche so much, I was willing to do things for him that I wouldn’t do for someone else. I was willing to be criticized and I was willing to have him be hard on me and the commitment that I felt in the beginning was very deep, even though it was mixed with my ideas about what commitment is and what relationships are. So I do think that my ability to give my life to another person was definitely aided by being a woman.
I think in the modern time in the West many women are interested in the Dharma and that’s a difference from the culture in Tibet and in India, where maybe women have an interest in the dharma but don’t have the opportunity to study and practice. I mean, certainly if I was born into Rinpoche’s village, I may have known him my whole life, but I would not have the education I have. Rinpoche always says that if I was born in Tibet some things would be easier for me but I would never have the teachings and the education that I have.
TYP: Have you had to defend the choices that you’ve made over the course of your life with Rinpoche?
ACZ: Oh, certainly. I’ve received criticism from Buddhists as well as non-Buddhists and I think that being close to a lama you are used to being criticized by everyone. If people don’t like the way that things are being handled in the Sangha, whether or not it’s my decision, people will naturally blame that on me. When you really think about the role of the Khandro in Tibet, it’s always been to be the person in between the students and the lama, protecting the lama, protecting the students, mediating between them. You always hear stories like this. I mean, think of Milarepa being so heartbroken and having the Khandro look after him and support him and make him feel like he could keep going. That’s not the Lama’s job.
But, people have all different sorts of ideas. I think we live in such an open culture and open society that it’s better for everybody to connect with the dharma in a way that makes sense for them and that’s comfortable for them and then they can go on from there. So I just really want to be a person who facilitates that.
TYP: Your life is definitely not for everybody.
TYP: I’ve heard that it’s the hardest job, getting that blame and criticism from both sides all the time.
ACZ: All the time. Well, yes certainly. In earlier years it was harder because Rinpoche, when he was really working on my self-attachment and my ego, those years when people would blame me, Rinpoche would take their side and Rinpoche would blame me too. That was really a difficult time.
But, a lot of growth came from that. And, at a certain point, Rinpoche stopped doing that. He said, “You don’t need me to do that anymore.” I think I was so arrogant…so confident, and that brings such a sense of arrogance with it. It is not like I intend to be that way, but it’s just how it is. It’s a natural flaw. So, Rinpoche worked on that arrogance for a long time.
TYP: I just have one last question, and that’s for people who connect with this and who want to hear more about what you are working on and how they can support your activities, how could they get more involved?
ACZ: Well, there’s always a lot of help that’s needed. But it takes time to build the connection with people where you can work together. So I guess the best thing is always, if someone comes to the center or even if they come to a teaching, if they say that they want to do something, and then they do it, I think that’s always the best way to help that makes a connection. Then, from there, we can see how we can work together. I’m always hesitant in the beginning when people say, “Oh, I’d like to do something” because you never really know if they are going to do it. But sometimes somebody will come up and say, “I’m going to do this and I really want to do this” and then they just do it. And then we have that connection and I think a lot of things can happen from there.
I always need help with projects that I’m working on for Rinpoche. There’s always work to be done with translation, with editing… I do take care of so many things, and there are people that I develop that connection with and they become the people I really rely on. Of course, there are many, many more people that we need, you know, to do that. But the connections just have to start somewhere and I think that’s a great way to do it, to take some initiative and do something.
This interview was conducted by Stella Bonnie for The Yogini Project on September 21, 2017.