Lama Lekshe was born in a logging family in the small hamlet of Disston, in rural Oregon. Her parents were 17 and 21 when she was born, and neither had graduated from high school. She nonetheless had the good fortune to attend college and pursued her undergraduate and graduate studies at the University of Oregon, where she majored in curriculum design and mathematics for four years and then information design and management in graduate school. After completing her studies, she became a professor at the university and later, a consultant for businesses. We are very fortunate to have her sharing her stories with us.
I was attending school in Oregon, a state with many small mountains, and the college had a program where students could borrow tents and equipment for camping and mountaineering. They taught us how to use it all. Right before I graduated, they sponsored an expedition to Nepal and I signed up for it. We flew to China, then traveled overland to Nepal where we climbed in the Everest region. On the way, we stopped in Lhasa, Tibet. I’d never been more than a few hundred miles from my home in Oregon. It was a great awakening. The others left as soon as the expedition was over. I stayed quite a bit longer. It was hard to leave Nepal.
Before departing the US, a friend who’d been in the Peace Corps in Nepal gave me a hundred prints of a photo of the Dalai Lama to share with Tibetans. He told me the photos were banned by the government, so I should be careful. I had no idea who the Dalai Lama was. People sometimes wept when they received the photos. I can remember them touching the photos to their foreheads and then slipping the photos into their jackets, near their hearts. I really didn’t understand the situation at the time; I had no idea about the oppression and how people were suffering. On that trip, quite by accident, I wandered over to the Potala, one of the homes of His Holiness. Inside, for the first time I saw a huge Chenrezig statue, illuminated by butter lamps and sort of hovering in the darkness on an altar. I had no idea what it was, but it was captivating. A Tibetan grandfather taught me the mantra. These experiences awakened something.
Sometime later, a group of us did the first mountain bike expedition from Lhasa to Kathmandu. The highest point was a little over 17,000 feet. This was before the construction of the highway that opened in 1967. It took us about 23 days. Again, Tibet and Nepal were magnetizing. The culture, the altitude, the beauty—something was speaking to me.
After coming back from the trip, I showed my employer the photos of our trip and he shared that he had also traveled when he was younger, in Central America. He said it changed his life and I should go back and stay for a while. I think his exact words were, “You haven’t been anywhere. You need to go somewhere.” After being so poor for so long I just couldn’t imagine leaving a good job that I actually liked. But then he told me that if I returned to Nepal, he would pay for my ticket and guarantee me a job for a year. It was too good to refuse. That kindness set my life in another direction completely.
So I went to Nepal. I had no plans. I didn’t even know one might create a plan for such a trip. I didn’t speak Nepali. I didn’t know a single person there. I checked into a tiny hotel and eventually manage, more or less accidentally, to find a place to live. I started to learn the language, and got a job working occasionally as a substitute teacher at the diplomatic school in Kathmandu. It was perfect: when I’d get close to running out of money, I’d walk down the hill from my house and call the school to see if they needed substitutes. A day or two’s work easily covered my rent.
During the time in Nepal, I worked just enough to pay my modest bills. I spent the rest of my time walking around, being curious, watching people do ordinary things. (I still do this. I went to Nepal this winter and I spent most of my time walking around, being curious. I made many new friends and collaborated with some Nepali friends to form a small project to help indigenous craftspeople.) Farmers, gold workers, weavers, sculptors, and people cooking lunch: I would ask them about their work and their lives. People were so open.
Our house had no heat, so when it got cold in the winters, I'd pack a light bag and go to India or Southern Nepal to find warmer weather. In fall, I’d pack a heavy bag and go wandering in the mountains. I felt at ease in these places in a way I never did back in Oregon.
There was a program at the diplomatic school to encourage children of all ages to go trekking in the Himalayas. Little kids went out for an overnight and older kids spent two weeks trekking. One year I worked as a guide. We used to call the lead cook “Mr. Good-cook.” He was Tamang and his job was to make sure the food was safe and healthy. A 16 year-old married Sherpani woman-friend and her husband planned a marriage for us—because, they said, they’d suddenly realized that the reason we were both not married at the ripe old age of 30 was because we were far from our homes and we had no family nearby to arrange it. I guess they couldn’t fathom being happily 30 and single. They arranged a ‘wedding’ dinner and everything. We had no idea. I left, super-embarrassed when I figured out what was happening. But gradually, he and I got to know each other and we finally did get married, and eventually we moved back to the US and had two children.
Lama Lekshe's son Jens and Mr Beezely
Kids learning about fear 2012
Lama Lekshe's daughter Kashi
While I lived in Nepal, I took up thangka painting. I wasn’t a Buddhist; I just admired the art form. Back in the US, I continued to paint, and study Tibetan calligraphy. I was working at the university again. One Saturday at my thangka painting teacher's house, I saw a letter from a man in San Francisco. The letter said he had been invited to teach at a Dharma community in Portland and was looking for a job. I thought I could help, so my painting teacher gave me his address and we met. It was the 90s and jobs were plentiful, and he kept going out to meet with the university’s corporate clients, but always narrowly missed getting hired. I couldn't figure it out—he seemed like such a nice guy—smart and likable and he had a great sense of humor.
At one point, I’d been sent a memo by the university saying I could hire an administrative assistant. On that very day, the man was in my office, and he saw the letter on my desk and said, “Well, why don’t you hire me?” It’s funny it hadn’t occurred to me. We talked for quite awhile. He didn’t mention being Buddhist.
I hired him straight away.
The department where I worked had been plagued by conflict and I was brought there to help. My new administrator was the best accidental change we made. Everywhere he went, things calmed down, people got happier. Eventually, I asked him how he managed to be so calm in such a conflicted environment and he said it was probably meditation. I can remember saying, “Mediation?” And he said, “No. Meditation.” To be honest, I didn’t even know what meditation was. When he explained it, I felt determined to learn how to do it and told him so. And then he said these magic words: “Oh I don't think I’d do that if I were you.” I said, “You’re not the boss of me.” Thinking about that very moment, knowing what I know now makes me laugh. He certainly was going to be the boss of me, but I didn’t know it yet.
My new administrative assistant’s name was Michael Conklin—Lama Michael Conklin, though he never referred to himself as Lama. He had come to take the position of Resident Lama at Kalu Rinpoche's Dharma Center in Portland, Oregon, and so I went there to be his student, even though I didn’t have any idea what that actually might mean. From that point, Dharma very quickly became the center of my life. Being married to a Nepalese man and having lived in Nepal for some time, the cultural aspects of Tibetan Buddhism were not challenging. As for meditation and retreat, I had grown up in the woods and spent a lot of time alone, so solitude seemed natural. All the pieces came together easily for my heart and my mind.
I offered to volunteer as Lama Michael’s administrative assistant. I thought if I worked closely with him, I’d be able to receive short teachings at work, and this appealed to my introverted nature. It worked exactly like that until 2014 when our three-year retreat started. But as much as I learned from his teachings, I think I learned more from being witness to his life. He was an ordinary person, but so full of spiritual endurance, wisdom and compassion.
Lama Michael Conklin
Lama Michael giving refuge in 2012
You sure have a very reversed story compared to most people, you went to Nepal to pursue mountain biking, married a Tamang man and was not even engaged with Buddhism several years after your first visit to Nepal! So, when did you decide to take a monastic vow and become a nun?
Well, I was reading a lot of Thrangu Rinpoche's books. I had heard about him in Nepal and how he was an advocate for nuns and female practitioners. It’s a little more common now but it wasn’t then. Although other teachers may have been doing the same thing in less well-known areas, Thrangu Rinpoche was speaking about the importance of women and their practice in the Kathmandu valley. I was very moved by this. It was quite visionary, and I am not sure everyone appreciated all the emphasis on equality. He was talking a lot about healthcare and education for women, too. It was so outside the box for the time. As I read and studied his work (Lama la was choked up while remembering the kindness of Thrangu Rinpoche), I felt a strong urge to practice more deeply. I thought that taking a vow of some kind made sense and so I talked to Lama Michael about it.
I told Lama Michael I’d like to take ordination before entering our three-year retreat. He wrote a letter to Thangu Rinpoche asking him if I could take ordination but wait until entering the long retreat to begin wearing robes. Thrangu Rinpoche told me he’d think about it. The next day he said since Lama Michael thought it was a good idea, he would agree.
Lama Michael also asked me to keep my vow secret for the first year, so no one would pay any special attention to me as a nun. It was actually a great experiment to first carry the vows in this way. He’d said that it’s easy to enjoy certain privileges and attention with the robes, so he preferred that I didn't have that in the beginning, and he thought it would be helpful to have time to grow into the vows during retreat.
Though I had been to a few retreats with Thrangu Rinpoche, my main Tibetan teacher was Bokar Rinpoche, but it never occurred to me to talk to him about ordination. Even though I did many retreats with him in India, I’d never seen him with nuns. So, I requested the vows from Thrangu Rinpoche in Vancouver, BC. Of course, Bokar Rinpoche was a terrific supporter of women practitioners, including nuns. I learned that later.
Kathy, I recently read an interview you did with another nun on your website. I have never lived in a community with other nuns as she does, and it seems wonderful. I feel a little feral by comparison. When we took ordination, Rinpoche’s staff helped the other postulate and I get dressed. We never got instruction on how to do it ourselves. When I entered the three-year retreat, I brought two shamtabs, (monastic lower robes) and one Tibetan-style long wrap-around skirt, but I had no idea how to fold the shamtabs.
We had two retreat masters, one female lama, and my teacher, Lama Michael. On the first day of retreat I asked Lama Michael how to properly fold the robe. He had worn them on his long retreat, but said he had forgotten. So, I asked the female retreat master and she said she wasn't 100 percent sure, even though she, too, had worn them on retreat. No one else came into retreat. There was no one to ask!
So, for the next 3 and a half years, I looked at pictures of various monastics that we had in the cloister to try and figure it out. I am still not sure I do it exactly right. I am also not sure my enlightenment depends on it, so I don’t worry about it too much.
When I got out of retreat, I took time to study the vows, but I was not as educated about them as if I had been in monastic training all that time, as some people are. I continue to explore them and I take them sincerely. They and my other two vows are the guide stars of my life. I read about, and am concerned about my fellow nuns. But in my day-to-day life, I feel kind of ‘part-nun’ because I don’t live with other nuns. And yet, I feel myself to be–however errant—a genuine aspiring holder of the vows of ordination. I try my best to live a life dedicated to dharma. My life’s vow is to awaken, and to contribute to the awakening of others. I fail, of course, continuously, but that’s the process, isn’t it?
Our Cabins on 3-year retreat
Bokar Rinpoche's Monastery in West Bengal, where Lama Lekshe studies
Buddha in snow at SCOL
Lama la, you live in a Zen parsonage, owned by Zen Community of Oregon. You said they also have a temple across the street called Heart of Wisdom temple, which is where you do weekly services. Could you tell us how the Zen practice appears to your own tradition?
After I had finished three-year retreat, I stayed with two friends in Portland. I didn’t go out much in those months—coming out of a retreat was a big adjustment. After that, the two Abbots of a local Zen Monastery suggested that I take up residency at their rural monastery in Oregon. After I’d lived there for a few weeks, they decided I should relocate to their home, which was very near the monastery on a forested hill overlooking the river.
We’d get up in the morning and go to the monastery and return most nights very late. I’d often come back around midnight and walking down the driveway to my room, I’d see them in the upstairs window, working. They were a great inspiration. Between them, they have been practicing Zen more than 100 years.
Just shortly after moving in, Covid broke out and the monastery implemented a lockdown for a year. (People could leave, of course, but if they did, they couldn’t return. Both the Abbots were retired physicians and so they had some sense of what a pandemic might mean.) I did all kinds of things at the monastery–gardening and cleaning and teaching and meeting with young postulates and residents and helping with strategic planning and all kinds of things. It was wonderful to live in a monastic community and to be present with these two senior Zen teachers, both of whom are remarkable people. I continued to teach students in Portland, but once the pandemic began, I couldn't commute to the city on teaching days as I had in the past.
When we went into lockdown, a young monk helped me make a Zoom studio in a small room at the monastery and I started teaching online. It was all so new. Frankly, I didn’t know if it would work, but I thought maybe people would need practice more than ever as the pandemic progressed—and it appears that they did. Many students in our community came during that year and most of them have stayed.
On the first anniversary of living at the monastery—almost to the day—I received a text informing me that my mother was in the hospital and was going to have urgent open-heart surgery the next morning. She was 84 years old. My mother, less than 20 years older than me, had always supported my practice and I had told her that if she would give her blessing to do the long retreat, I would come and live with her when she could no longer live alone.
I quickly packed small rucksack, left the monastery, and got to the hospital in a couple of hours. Mom’s surgery the next day was successful—she survived—but within weeks her doctors suggested we start at-home hospice. While I lived in her home, caring for her 24/7 with the help of an exceptional hospice team and my brother, I continued to teach for our center, Dekeling, over the Internet. My kids moved my belongings from the monastery and once again I gave away my belongings.
My mother, who had been so kind to me in this life and who I consider to be one of my most important teachers, gave me one last teaching when she was dying. The students at Dekeling asked if I would continue teaching or if I wanted to stop and just care for my mom. I told them I’d teach, but that if during any meditation or class she called for me from the adjacent room, I’d go on the same breath and I wouldn’t return until she didn’t need me anymore; they’d just have to meditate or log off, or whatever made sense. They agreed.
For months it unfolded in that way. They’d ask for updates whenever we met. It was very intimate to share with them, and to practice with my mother’s approaching death in this public way. Sometimes I cried. Sometimes most of us cried. But people recount this as a powerful time. I told them, “We have to practice like this, no matter what.” I was talking to myself, I suppose.
In those months, my mother used to call out for me day and night. She’d wake me up in the dark of night and say, “Are you there? Let’s have a conversation.” I slept on the floor near her bed, so I’d just get up and sit beside her. I was so sleepless and exhausted and happy to surrender completely. She seemed to have no sense of time, but you know what? Not once did she call for me during a teaching. Not one time. The students noticed that. I noticed that. My mother had an uncanny mind, even after she lost consciousness.
The process of teaching while I was caring for my mother was transformational. I’d talk to her and bathe her and then meditate. She’d need medications and massage and then I’d practice and fall asleep. I’d eat half a banana and fall asleep, holding her hand. Hospice nurses would come and tend to her and I’d do laundry. Loads and loads of laundry. I’d use folding towels as practice. I’d log on and tell the students, “We just do our best to meet every experience. A practice has to come off the cushion and into our lives. Openness and willingness, this is how it works.”
My mom died on Christmas day. We were alone and I had made a tsok offering on her behalf. I’d built a fire in the fireplace and was sitting with her, holding her hand, telling her what a good mother she’d been and how we were all fine. On one faint in-breath, her eyes fluttered open, gazed upward and she exhaled. That was it. It was a very emotional moment, of course. I remember it vividly. The hospice nurse came after a few hours and she was so kind and present. We cared for my mom and talked to her as we washed her body and dressed her. The nurse encouraged me to take as long as I needed. I treasure that experience.
Later that day, my brother called and asked me to come to his home and spend the night. I did, and on the way, I looked back at my mom’s neighborhood, just about five minute’s drive from her home and there were two rainbows over her neighborhood. I photographed them. I felt it was a good omen. My teacher’s teacher, Kyabje Kalu Rinpoche said, “All omens are good omens.” One last teaching.
After my mother passed away, I slowly gave away her things as she had requested, sold her house, and moved back to Portland, into a house owned by a friend of mine. After that, the Abbots suggested that I move into a home they own across the street from their temple in Portland. The Abbots occupy a small apartment in the back of the house fairly often on weekends. I teach at the house and online, still, and I get to enjoy the benefit of the Abbots’ presence in my life, which is so beneficial. My teacher has dementia now. I see him and we talk dharma and he still affects my mind and heart, though of course it’s different.
My brief time immersed in the Zen tradition along with my proximity to the Roshis had a deep influence on how I teach. For instance, during a recent Medicine Buddha forest retreat, I asked the students to hand sew a pecha cover for their practice texts. You can buy them, but it seemed better practice to do it by hand. Many students were sewing for the first time. They sewed in silence, as practice, and helped each other. That was the way that we learned at the monastery: answering, with action, the moment-to-moment question, “What is asked for right now? This very moment?”
Zen Monastery Field 2020
Great Vow Ordination
Interview Room at the monastery
This reminded me of Trungpa Rinpoche's love for Zen. So, your teaching is influenced greatly by Zen tradition! Can you tell us more about your teaching style and your local community?
I have been greatly inspired by Trungpa Rinpoche’s incorporation of calligraphy, poetry, and other things into his teaching and practice. But mostly, in my limited experience, these elements have not been emphasized in the transmission of Tibetan to the US in most places. Because of my brief exposure to Zen, and because of my training as a secular teacher, I use this approach to practice and teaching.
I guess if I have a puzzle as a teacher and student, it's how to practice and teach Buddhism in a contemporary culture, in this time and place, and yet be absolutely true to the tradition as it was taught to me. I never feel sure I am on exactly the right track, but I am learning to like that lack of certainty. It helps me stay awake. It makes it necessary to appreciate and respect the input of others, while still being fully responsible to make many decisions. It’s humbling.
I use my curriculum design and teaching experience to reimagine how Buddhism might be transmitted here. I integrate skills I learned in consulting: dialogue, conflict management, and transition management, for example. But at the same time, I am very 'old-school'. I place emphasis on mysticism, ritual and face-to-face transmission of dharma. I teach from the texts and the commentaries I was trained with. I feel for myself it’s important to contextualize Dharma but not to re-invent things too much.
In our community, we often have conversations about where community members see the community going. I let them know that it’s not my personal mission to build a Dharma community; I spent 4 decades doing that at the center where I trained. I tell them that if they have a vision, I will be their servant, and they seem satisfied with that.
These students have families, some with kids and some not, and they are dealing with demanding jobs, college debt and other challenges. They tell me that they think that lay people today might just want to have simple, sustainable lifestyles. They are not much interested in building empires or even buildings. Instead, they are inquiring about how things were done in the past. I share that in our tradition was a wandering yogin tradition and a teacher might have traveled around to different villages, teaching, practicing and doing retreats, forming connections with small communities and individuals. They like this idea, because it’s easy on resources and built on renunciation of a few different kinds and is more simple than complex.
In our earliest conversations, young women in particular mentioned that they wanted to reconnect with the earth and the environment in this life. They felt that practicing Buddhist rituals was one key to doing this. I told them that when I lived in Nepal, lay people did rituals all the time. I try to respond to their yearnings. Their leaning is towards traditional, authentic, and very personal practices. This hands-on way is more important to them than the idea of having monastics do ceremonies for them, for example. I like the way it antidotes our modern tendency to get stuck in over-conceptualizing Dharma and to feel that practice is someone else’s capacity and responsibility.
My generation was focused on self-improvement and on family. Our community’s young people have a much more broad sense of interconnectedness with others and with the world around them. They think differently…much more inclusively and they are wise to the truth of living like that. We have older members too, some over eighty, who provide that perspective for balance.
Our community is also passionately interested in balancing the 'voice' of Buddhist transmission. We respectfully and gratefully study and practice in the stream of many great teachers who identified as male, and we are committed to bringing forward the actions and voices of those who identified and do identify as women or non-binary. We want to expand the bandwidth of impact and 'voice' in this century to more reflect the diverse of all heart-minds. I am learning, learning, learning from our students as they experiment with this. The practice is still basically exactly as it has always been, but the representation is shifting a little. Right now we are working on a supplication of great practitioners who were women.
Lama la was giving a Dharma talk in a park during the pandemic
Facilitating a Leadership Retreat
Lama la, can you give Bodhiblossoms some advice from the business consultant point of view?
(Laughter) When I was engaged in business consulting, my employer was a Quaker. I asked him for a month off each year for retreat, thinking an employer would never go for that, but he wholeheartedly supported it. He taught me to make your work your life, and to be sure your work reflects your life’s values. He embodied that.
Another thing I learned from him which I really appreciate is that testing an idea is best done with a small experiment. He would always stress that the risks should be minimal and not involve too much debt. We trained our clients who were universities, community colleges, prison schools, art schools and so on, to try small experiments first, and then scale up.
When I heard about your ideas, Kathy, I thought it was good to start small and to gradually make incremental, workable changes. The most compelling thing is a small experiment that is working beautifully. So, if two nuns were benefiting from living together, then another would probably want to join, and so on.
When we were building our retreat center, we had to raise a couple of million dollars. Once the building was half-built, I could take people to see it and they would be happy to donate. In the more than a decade-long process of building our retreat center, my teacher never let us accumulate debt. He said, “It’s hard to raise enthusiasm to pay off debt. It’s easy to get enthusiastic about finishing a building.” I think that’s terrific advice.
We also learned from our Theravada friends that simple is better: if your bed is simple, when it’s time to get up, just fold the comforter, smooth the pillow and you’re done. When you eat, use one plate and utensil, very simple. Eat, wash your dishes. Done. My mom used to say, if your towels are all the same color, you won't have to worry about whether they match.
From the consulting work I did, I learned not to create something complex when you could create something elegantly simple. Our younger generation of students has an understanding of this and when I start complexifying things, they reign me in. I like that about them.
This applies to Dharma, too. We just practice. It’s not complicated. The instructions are clear (even if sometimes mysterious) and we just do our best—with open mind and open hearts, and dogged consistency. With this we accumulate merit. From simple good deeds, ordinary kindness, we accumulate merit. We don’t have to control everything. We can relax. The Dharma is always working. We can trust this a little. We are blessed.
We practice and do good deeds to accumulate merit—we chant mantra and recite aspiration prayers. We meditate, of course, but it’s not for everyone. There are so many ways to practice. Simple things like being kind to our neighbors are beneficial. We should never discount that. Bodhicitta will take root, we can trust that. Our only job is to keep practicing.
We’re not constructing our awakening, it’s already there. We’re uncovering it, recognizing it. Day and night, whatever arises is our next practice. Wherever we are, that’s our temple. Wherever we walk, that’s our path. We can just love and bless what’s right in front of us. Working with all the community—the young, the old, the animals and the Earth, the big dreams of Dharma may not happen, but if even if we just manage to help beings a little, it’s worth waking up in the morning. This love is not an insignificant contribution.
Lama Lekshe with Karma Siddhi Lama, Nepal, 2019
Last blessing from thangka painting teacher. He died of Covid
Anything else you would like to share with us?
I am really in love with the world. I am a simple, practical person. I like to get things done. I like to make things happen in collaboration. I am excited about using intellect, worldly skills, creativity and secular networks, resources and power to benefit beings. But I also am fully committed to the world of heart—to learning from the earth, the sky, the elements and all beings, without any exception. I am grateful to the lineage, to every single being who longs to awaken, Buddhist or not. I wake up grateful and humbled every day.
Gosh, Kathy-la. I talked too much. You inspire me. All the nuns, they inspire me. (Laughing)
Lama Lekshe is Dekeling’s current Resident Lama. She has been practicing Tibetan Buddhism since 1994 in Portland, Oregon, Nepal, and India. Her teachers are Bokar Rinpoche, Khenpo Lodro Donyo Rinpoche, and Lama Michael Conklin. In 2018, she completed a traditional three-year Shangpa Kagyu meditation retreat under the direction of Lama Michael Conklin and Lama Tara Goforth of Victoria, British Columbia.
Before long retreat, she was a university teacher and a consultant to colleges. Lekshe lives at the Dekeling vicarage in Portland, Oregon.