Lama Thubten Zopa Rinpoche, a revered Tibetan Buddhist teacher, scholar, and beloved meditation master widely known as the cofounder and spiritual director of the Foundation for the Preservation of the Mahayana Tradition (FPMT), died Thursday, April 13, at 9:30 a.m. Nepal time, at Karuna Hospital in Kathmandu, Nepal. He was 76.
A public notice posted on the FPMT website just after his death announced:
Rinpoche had been up in the mountains in the Tsum Valley since Monday and had to be brought down urgently as [he] was experiencing altitude sickness.
On arrival back in Kathmandu this morning, Rinpoche stopped breathing. The main doctor at Karuna Hospital tried for some time to revive Rinpoche but that was not successful.
The notice further stated that following his death, Lama Zopa had returned to Kopan Monastery in Kathmandu, where prayers and pujas were being offered for him. Along with FPMT, Kopan was cofounded by Lama Zopa and his close teacher and collaborator Lama Thubten Yeshe.
Established in 1975 by Lama Zopa and Lama Thubten Yeshe, FPMT is described on its website as “an organization devoted to preserving and spreading Mahayana Buddhism worldwide by creating opportunities to listen, reflect, meditate, practice, and actualize the unmistaken teachings of the Buddha and based on that experience spreading the Dharma to sentient beings.” A vast international network, FPMT includes dharma centers, humanitarian and educational services, and myriad projects ranging from food banks, hospitals, senior centers, schools, and animal liberation efforts to dharma programs and text translation.
Lama Zopa was born Dawa Chotar in the Mount Everest region of Thangme, Nepal, in 1946. His father died when he was very young, and his mother struggled to provide for the boy and his siblings. Though he became a distinguished member of the Gelugpa school, when he was 3 or 4 years old—sources vary—he was recognized as a tulku, the reincarnation of a prominent Nyingma yogi, the Lawudo Lama Kunsang Yeshe, who had meditated for twenty years in a cave near Lama Zopa’s birthplace.
At age 4, Lama Zopa was sent to Rolwaling Monastery, close to Nepal’s border with Tibet. In an autobiography posted in the Lama Yeshe Wisdom Archive, Lama Zopa described his early life and said, “I was very naughty at that time and only wanted to play, so I wouldn’t stay in the monastery.” Stay he did, however. And when he was 7 or 8, after reading the life story of the Buddhist saint Milarepa, he felt “a strong desire in [his] heart to be a really good practitioner by finding an infallible guru like Marpa, just as Milarepa had.”
At age 10, Lama Zopa was taken by his uncles on a pilgrimage to Tibet. He refused to return home, saying he wanted to study the dharma, and he remained at the monastery of a Gelugpa tulku, Domo Geshe Rinpoche. He described those years in a memoir, The Door to Satisfaction.
When the Chinese occupied Tibet in 1959 and “the threat of torture was imminent,” he later wrote, Lama Zopa fled to Bhutan and then to a Tibetan refugee camp in Buxa Duar, in West Bengal, India. A British concentration camp in World War II, the Indian government had allowed the Tibetan Government-in-Exile to use it to house monks from the Sera, Ganden, and Drepung Monasteries in Tibet who wanted to continue their studies. After six months in which he went to Delhi, contracted tuberculosis and smallpox, and studied English at Freda Bedi’s school for incarnate tulkus, Lama Zopa returned to Buxa, where he studied meditation with Geshe Rabten Rinpoche and found his root guru, Kyabje Trijang Rinpoche. It was at Buxa that Lama Zopa met his teacher and collaborator Lama Yeshe. Thereafter their lives were intertwined until the elder lama’s death in 1984.
During a visit to Ghoom Monastery in Darjeerling, India, in 1967, Lama Zopa and Lama Yeshe met their first Western student, Zina Rachevsky. Rachevsky—variously described as a Russian-American-French socialite and sometime actress—had mistakenly thought Lama Zopa was Domo Geshe Rinpoche, whom she had come to see. Nonetheless, she and Lama Zopa became fast friends, and, at Rachevsky’s request, he and Lama Yeshe spent nearly a year teaching a small group at her home. After a visit to Dharamsala, where the Dalai Lama ordained Rachevsky as a novice nun, the three went to Kathmandu, where they established Kopan Monastery. In 1971, Lama Zopa held the first of what became his famous annual lamrim (“stages of the path”) course, still offered every November at Kopan.
The following year, Lama Zopa and Lama Yeshe founded the Mount Everest Center for Buddhist Studies in Lawudo, Nepal, and in India, they opened the Tushita Meditation Centre in Dharamsala. Initially intended as a retreat center for advanced students, it was later opened up to practitioners at any level, and the ten-day Introduction to Buddhism course instituted by Lama Zopa remains a popular offering.
In 1974, Lama Zopa and Lama Yeshe began traveling internationally to establish dharma centers, and there are now more than 140 FPMT affiliates in thirty-four countries. Upon Lama Yeshe’s death in 1984, Lama Zopa assumed spiritual direction of FPMT. Until his death, he was actively involved in executing his “vast visions” for FPMT, which grew out of a series of ideas he jotted on colored Post-it notes during a retreat in May 2007.
Despite his non-stop schedule, Lama Zopa found time to write thirteen books. With titles like Patience, How to Be Happy, The Door to Satisfaction, Transforming Problems into Happiness, and The Four Noble Truths: A Guide to Everyday Life, his most popular books are notable for their accessibility, translating traditional Buddhist teachings into practical wisdom for day-to-day living. One of those books is, appropriately, How to Face Death Without Fear, a guide to the process of dying and after-death spiritual care. These and Lama Zopa’s other books and commentaries published by Wisdom Publications, an affiliate of FPMT, are used by practitioners worldwide.
For thousands of followers, Lama Zopa was not just a dharma teacher but also a trusted advisor. Even those with little connection to Buddhism were beneficiaries of his down-to-earth advice. “It is a blessing that we still have a vast collection of his recommendations, carefully preserved by the Lama Yeshe Wisdom Archive in the Online Advice Book,” said Michael Lobsang Tenpa, a longtime student and former monk, who translated Lama Zopa’s teachings into Russian. “In addition to public teachings, he gave personal practice advice, including prescribing personalized lists of practices for people to follow, depending on their inclinations.”
Lama Zopa’s boundless energy was well known, hardly slowed by a stroke in 2011. Khandro Kunga Bhuma , a teacher and one of the oracles serving the Central Tibetan Administration, who frequently traveled and taught with Lama Zopa, noted that he was extremely skillful in resting in the mind of clear light while at the same time performing the vast activities of a bodhisattva 24/7. His generosity was legendary. “He would never travel without several suitcases containing scriptures and sacred objects meant to bless all beings his plane would fly over,” Lobsang Tenpa said. “Even just weeks before his passing, Rinpoche would go to the Boudhanath Stupa in Kathmandu late in the evening to do circumambulations, blessing all he met and generously sharing teachings with everyone who was willing to listen.”
It’s hard to imagine the magnitude of Lama Zopa’s impact on tens of thousands of people around the world, Robyn Brentano, a longtime student, said. She defined his charisma this way: “The source of Lama Zopa Rinpoche’s spiritual power is his boundless compassion for all living beings, integrated with his profound knowledge of the Dharma and skill in teaching ways to transform our hearts and minds. He is a great yogi who lived in a continual state of bliss, and he induced that sense of joy and connection in all who came into his presence. He was so attuned to the needs and aspirations of individual students that his advice always hit home and opened pathways to inner development and liberation.”
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