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Lion's Roar : the Venerable Namgyal Rinpoche

Venerab le Namgyal Rinpoche

Venerable Sonam Senge

Tarchin Hearn

This very brief outline of the life of the Venerable Namgyal Rinpoche was written by Tarchin Hearn on Feb.5/04, including biographical background from Sonam Gyatso and Derek Rasmussen.]

On October 22, 2003 in a cottage on the shore of the Bodensee in Switzerland the great teacher known as Namgyal Rinpoche died at the age of 72.

The Ven. Namgyal Rinpoche (Leslie George Dawson), a Canadian of Irish-Scottish descent, was born and raised in Toronto, Canada. There he went to Malvern Collegiate Institute where he excelled in music appreciation; for a summer job he worked at the Connaught laboratories, which gave him an early interest in biology and medicine. After having had many mystical experiences in his younger years, in hi late teens he felt the call to the ministry, attending Jarvis Baptist Seminary for a short time where he learned many arts such as ‘homiletics’ and ‘higher (biblical) criticism’. He did not enter the ministry at that time but moved on to further studies in Philosophy and Psychology at the University of Michigan, Ann Arbour. He then got intensely involved in the Socialist youth movement in Canada, culminating in a visit to Russia to address a youth conference in Moscow. After this he returned to London, England, where he explored the Western mystery tradition and Buddhism and began to practice meditation regularly.

In 1956 the young Leslie George Dawson attended a talk given by the Burmese meditation master the Ven. Sayadaw U Thila Wunta at the Buddhist Society Monastery in London. Some powerful connection must have been awakened at this time. The Sayadaw suggested that theyoung Canadian travel to Burma to study with him, and they agreed to meet in Bodhgaya, India, in order to travel the last leg of the journey to Burma together. They met there in early October as Sayadaw was completing a 49 day retreat, and shortly after, in the mon astery of the Ven. Sayadaw U Ottama in Bodhgaya on 28th October, 1958, Leslie George Dawson was ordained as a novice monk, and given the name Ananda Bodhi. They traveled on to Calcutta, and upon returning to Burma, the young Canadian was given full Bhikkhu ordination at the great Ordination Hall at the south gate of the Shwe Dagon Pagoda in Rangoon on December 21, 1958.

After a period of intensive meditation in Burma, Thailand and Sri Lanka, he received the full title of Samatha-Vipassana-Kammathan-Acariya, a master teacher of meditation. Invited by the English Sangha Trust to teach, he returned to England in 1961 to be the incumbent abbot in London. During the next few years of teaching around the U.K., he established the Hamstead Buddhist Vihara in London and a retreat centre in the south of Scotland called Johnstone House. Today it is thriving as a very active Karma Kagyu Centre called Samye Ling. A third meditation centre in Staffordshire (Biddulph Old Hall) was established, but it is no longer a retreat centre.

“The Bhikkhu” (as he was known at that time) returned to Canada in 1965 where he began to teach in Toronto. In 1966, with a group of students, he established the Dharma Centre of Canada, a 400 acre study-meditation centre near Kinmount, Ontario. The Bikkhu taught in Canada, mostly in Toronto and at the Dharma Centre, for about 8 months each year and then encouraged students to travel and study dharma with him during the remaining 4 months. During this period he traveled to the principal Tibetan monasteries in India and Sikkim, where he met H.H. The Dalai Lama and H.H. The (late) 16th Gyalwa Karmapa who recognized him as a tulku. At this time, the Bhikkhu didn’t feel that there was any point re-ordaining in the Tibetan tradition since the vows were the same as those he was already carrying. He returned to Canada, continuing to teach as Ananda Bodhi. At this time many of his students were young Canadians from the hippie era. It was a time of great experimentation and challenging of all traditions. Moving in this flow of energy, he taught a wide range of approaches to awakening using all the main traditions of Buddhism along with psychotherapy, western science, art, philosophy, politics, movement and dance, and many other disciplines. This was a very rich experimental time as he investigated what activities would most help to liberate beings.

Shortly after I began to study with the Bhikkhu in 1970 we traveled to India and on to Rumtek, Sikkim, with 108 students. During this visit, Rinpoche was re-ordained by H.H. the 16th Karmapa and given the name Karma Tenzin Dorje Namgyal Rinpoche. Soon after, Rinpoche played a major role in the first visits to the West by three great masters: H.H. Sakya Trizen, H.H. The (late) 16th Gyalwa Karmapa, and the (late) Ven. Kalu Rinpoche, all of whom he was very close to.

From this time till his death, Rinpoche traveled the world continuously teaching, exploring, and supporting the establishment of many centres for the study and practice of Buddhadharma. He showed us a path of Dharma, an immense mandala of bodhisattva activity, that was open and willing to explore every facet of life. Outwardly eclectic in expression, there was nothing that didn’t have a place in this vast vehicle of awakening; however, although we explored so many facets of life, the teaching and practice always came back to essence Mahamudra, the cultivation of mindfulness, and the active work of flowering many forms of compassion into the world for the benefit of all beings.
Over the years, his life has directly and indirectly touched an extraordinary number and range of people so that the ripples of his teachings continue to spread throughout the world. Some of his students have become very skilled and competent teachers of dharma in their own right so that they and the centres that they have helped establish continue to flourish and benefit beings in New Zealand, Australia, Japan, Canada, Central America, Great Britain and Europe.

The Wangapeka Study and Retreat Centre in New Zealand is one of the centres inspired into existence by the life and teaching of Namgyal Rinpoche. On his second last visit there, he was talking about the possibility of establishing in NZ a new centre for the practice of Dharma according to the Sakya tradition of Tibetan Buddhism. One person asked if the Wangapeka could be that centre. He said, “No, not the Wangapeka. This centre is for the development of new experimental forms and expressions of the Dharma.” In a way, this was what the life of Namgyal Rinpoche was very much about. He was a bridge from the great ancient traditions of unfolding to the space-age modern, world-wide web world.

Rinpoche was many things to many beings. He was an upholder of tradition, and simultaneously, an innovator and integrator of new pathways. He traveled all over the world. He inspired myriad people to step out of their comfort zones to explore and to compassionately help others. For some he was the archetypal Tibetan Rinpoche; for some, the Bhikkhu; for some the Master of the Lodge; for some, the Professor. For some he was a peace activist and anarchist. For some he was a cosmic travel agency. For some he was a naturalist and ecologist. For some he was a collector of exotica. For some he was a focus of fantasy and gossip. For some he was the most alive human being they had ever met. But who was he for himself? As he said to me many years ago on a Polish ship off the coast of Kenya, “I’m sunyata (emptiness)….plus whatever anyone else wants to project.” It has taken me years to realize that this statement applies to all of us. It has been wondrous ro have lived so many years knowing him, an extraordinary manifestation of Emptiness and vast compassionate activity.
May the wholesomeness of the teachings that he has given so freely to so many beings continue to grow and flourish for the sake of many beings yet to come.