A Room With a View at the Roof of the World: A personal account of my trip to attend the cremation ceremony of Khenchen Thrangu Rinpoche in Nepal

By Karma Lodro Kalsang

In November 2023 Karma Lodro Kalsang ventured to Nepal to represent the Abbey at the cremation of our Abbot, Khenchen Thrangu Rinpoche

My phone rang: it was Ani Pema, who was in retreat in Colorado.    

“Would you attend the cremation ceremony of Thrangu Rinpoche at Namobuddha Monastery in Nepal?” she asked.

Without hesitation, I said, “Yes.” 

After some weeks of anxious planning, I was finally flying to Nepal. On the approach to the Land of Gods, the plane flew parallel to a long mountain range of the Himalayas. Despite the challenging terrain, the plane required no tricky maneuvers to land. The real trick had been my getting an entry visa lined up in advance so my passport could be processed quickly on my arrival at Kathmandu airport.

In the shocking glare of the sun outside the terminal building was a large gaggle of taxis. My slated hotel taxi was not there. Brain fog hampered my judgement. I was afraid. I let one or two taxi drivers briefly own my intentions. I retreated back to the terminal where a guard kicked me out. Back in the sun I got more paralyzed by the second. 

Slowly I moved to the shade where I settled down somewhat. Things were not so bad, I told myself. After all, I was able to make myself understood, many of the signs and instructions were in the Roman alphabet and all the modern travel paraphernalia were on hand. The profound transition from rural Nova Scotia to the birthplace of the Buddha and home of Mt. Everest left me feeling inside out and back to front, if not upside down as well.

I approached the pre-paid taxi kiosk to borrow a phone to call my hotel to enquire about my taxi. The female attendant called my hotel, “OK wait a bit, he’ll be here shortly.” I left 5 USD for the young clerk. She stared at it but did not touch it. I felt I could hear her thinking “For a phone call?” A “staff” guy took me to a café down in the amphitheatre parking where I was served a bad Americano. The owner, seated at the next table, stood and greeted me. He was honoured that a monk would sit in his café. Staff is from the Namobuddha Monastery area, so he said. The driver from the hotel arrived. Staff paid for my coffee and water and we said our goodbyes. I appreciated the 5$ generosity, or so I told myself. Was I being cynical? No, it was a flit of meanness.

The taxi took me on urban thoroughfares that gave way to apartment buildings. The sight of a very long stretch of roadside workshops and garages lowered me further into my emotional fog. I foundered in the swarm of impressions of the severe poverty in Nepal. For example, a man squatted by the noisy dusty road with his grease gun and a small bucket of grease. He was a workforce of one. This was his livelihood. An odd feeling of morbid wallowing clutched at me. I numbed out at last and like a sack of potatoes I slid this way and that in the back seat. The taxi climbed the hills, sharp ravines on one side and gigantic buses on the other.

Room with a View

Standing on the 6th floor balcony of the hotel, I woke up, but inwardly. It was the magic of the far snow-covered mountains, Roof of the World. The multiple hills rolled closer and closer, I could see homes perched on their slopes and this valley emptied into the mists.

As I looked over the dazzling scene, I entertained some personal recollections of Khenchen Thrangu Rinpoche. From the beginning of my 20 years at the Abbey, he had been the Abbot. I had several opportunities to see him at work and reflect on his state of mind craft: he was always generous, always patient with a very broad view reaching into infinite space. Ani Pema’s sincerity towards him has inspired me to meditate on his example of Bodhicitta or Awakened Heart. I took my novice vows with him in New York state at the Karma Triyana Dharmachakra Center there. Two years later he gave me my Bhikshu vows in Sarnath, India.

While still on the balcony I turned my attention from the valley of mists to my one and only, personal, must-do in Kathmandu. I had to see the Buddha Eyes Stupa! Haha! Some creative photographers had expanded the actual form of the stupa: I expected something on the scale of Angkor Wat. Me too, I had waited for Christmas morning and expanded the reality in my mind. Instead of that it was a small neighbourhood encircling the stupa. I felt like I was in the modest-sized Globe Theatre in Shakespearean London. The precincts provided a kora (circumambulation lane) with the shops and cafés on their own outer ring. I did a three-turn kora reciting an Abbey favourite mantra, Om Amogashila.

The next morning nearby to the hotel, in the faint light, I stood by the mini-van that would transport me and other devotees to the cremation of Khenchen Thrangu Rinpoche at Namobuddha Monastery. I felt part crocodile and part quarter horse. That is to say part reptile and part noble being. I took my seat with my fellow passengers. Slowly we climbed the mountain where the monastery was located. We sought a ridge where we could see both sides. Corner after turn after corner such a sight eluded us.  On our sunless slope, the minivan passengers contemplated various complicated questions: who are we? where did we come from? and to what purpose are we here? On the other side of this mountain was the opportunity to see, to act with goodness, to liberate ourselves.

We were all pilgrims. In this mini-van everyone was seeking answers, comfort or release from the one question. Why the suffering of existence? Like the hot dusty wind, Sirocco from North Africa, our karmic wind was blowing. It is a Hindu concept and is never out of season. Our lives are pushed from behind by cause and effect. 

The mini-van navigated deep questioning potholes. A voice, one seat over, suggested as a question, “Are we the products of a faceless conspiracy of influences.”

Another voice asked, “Should we blame ‘our times’ for our circumstances?”

“If they are hidden or faceless how do you arraign them or hold them accountable?” asked another.

From the back, “What are circumstances anyway? Are they your mom and dad? Is your mother tongue to blame? How far back do you go?” 

“Hahaha. What a funny idea! Unschooled Neanderthals are making you a bad person now!”

The minivan slowed to a stop in front of a massive hole on a dim slope.  This pothole would be impassable in the rainy season. It was more a pot canyon! It was a whole environment. There were hardly any edges for the minivan to crawl past on. 

“I agree, we are the products of our times,” I thought to myself. “We all have circumstances; social circumstances, body circumstances, mental and emotional stuff. The cookie crumbles thus.” I ask myself “why am I climbing this mountain in this mini-van packed with other pilgrims?”

As the minivan groaned on I turned my head to the deep valley below. and entered a deep contemplation. This idea of being a “done deal” did not sit well with me. What about my free will? Can I beat the Neanderthal case? Verily do my own words condition my lot? Is Mother Nature a prison sentence? Am I a dead man walking, a dzombie in a circumstantial overcoat that weighs a tonne? Am I pre-buried?

As the mini-van chugged upward I saw a kind of aurora skim the tops of the trees on the other side. It was the open face of Khenchen Thrangu Rinpoche, bodiless as light. This sunny opportunity poured into the mini-van. All the minivan passengers sported dzombie smiles. Collectively, we envisioned part of a cloudy clock face rising on the other side. The face showed the year, month, day, hour, minute and second…it said: “Now is your opportunity to act with intention. It comes in the 7th hour, 59th minute and the 59th second of the karmic wind. Now is your moment to act freely.”

Not too far below the Namobuddha Monastery, not far below on rare flat ground was the cremation site. Under an expansive canopy, the crowd of many hundreds was in attendance. The remains of KTR had been installed in the purkhang (or cremation stupa) with a simple procession ceremony. On raised seats marking the cardinal points ranking members of the four main schools of Tibetan Buddhism recited liturgies. Several monks applied offerings to the large portals on the top bulb of the stupa. At first, only faint smoke rose from the purkhang. Soon the smoke billowed and then died down. Then flames appeared. More offerings were made. Are they tormas or offering cakes, I wondered? The flames surged up and out the purkhang’s dark portals which resembled big eye sockets shooting fire. The flames rose and fell, rose up and fell again for about an hour. 

Amongst the assembly there are no histrionics associated with the loss of a loved one. The event is remarkably serene. Although Khenchen Thrangu Rinpoche died 5 months ago, the solemnity was palpable. When the fire dwindled the crowd on the lower terrace created an exit line around the stupa which I joined. I offered up my khata to the monk on the stupa. (“Don’t throw them.” he shouted to others.) 

The dense crowd filed out and then climbed up the stairs to the roadway where another worldly challenge took place. It was futile to get a taxi when everyone was going home at once. The mood turned to disappointment, vexation and frustration.

Another monastic and I slumped into an anticipated hour or two wait.  Suddenly an acquaintance appeared in a Land Rover and offered us a ride down the mountain. The collective 59th second practice had suffused everyone with experience and impermanence. We chattered excitedly while we descended into the heavenly valley of Kathmandu and gently closed the door of the Room with a View. 

Karma Lodro Kalsang is the senior monk and Preceptor at Gampo Abbey. He has lived in the community for over 20 years, keeping the physical plant operating by fighting rust, encroaching alder bushes, aging plumbing, and the inevitable challenges of living in community in a remote area.