Namtrul Rinpoche and Khandro Tare Lhamo on the grasslands of Golok in eastern Tibet. Photographer unknown.

“Please bear in mind that I have great affection / For my inseparable companion across many lifetimes,” wrote Namtrul Rinpoche to the female Buddhist visionary Khandro Tare Lhamo in 1978. Later, she echoed the sentiment: “Congenial friend, I recall our connection. / Of course, I remember, darling. / I could never forget your love and affection.”

The Buddhist tantric couple Khandro Tare Lhamo and Namtrul Rinpoche exchanged love letters in the wake of the Cultural Revolution (1966–76) and the destruction of most visible signs of Tibetan culture, including the vast majority of Buddhist temples and monasteries. Through intimate exchanges and visionary recollections, they reached beyond the destruction, tracing their connection across lifetimes to the advent of Buddhism in Tibet. This allowed them to access a wellspring of teachings and blessings with which to begin again.

Via secret messenger, they exchanged 56 letters between 1978 and 1980 in which they envisioned their prophetic mission to restore Buddhism to eastern Tibet and developed a lasting personal bond. In the letters, their joy and affection in recalling their past lives together is matched only by the sadness of their separation across province borders at a time when travel was highly restricted. Indeed, during this period the couple met only once, when Namtrul Rinpoche surreptitiously traveled from Serta in Sichuan Province to Padma in Qinghai Province to spend a brief sojourn with Tare Lhamo and meet her relatives.

Khandro Tare Lhamo (1938–2002) was the daughter of a prominent teacher in Golok, a region of eastern Tibet, and received esoteric training with the acclaimed tantric masters of her day. Tragedy struck during the socialist transformation of Tibetan areas in the late 1950s, and her first husband and three brothers, all reincarnate lamas, were imprisoned as “class enemies” and died shortly thereafter. Only a teenager at the time, Namtrul Rinpoche (1944–2011) was spared their fate, even though he had been enthroned as a reincarnate lama in his youth. Tare Lhamo spent her twenties and thirties consigned to manual labor, and Namtrul Rinpoche served as the secretary for his work unit with the literary skills he had developed during his monastic education.

Given this historical backdrop, their exchange has a remarkably upbeat tone. In her second letter, Tare Lhamo, who initiated the correspondence, issued a galvanizing call to action, suggesting that a show of strength—represented by two mythic animals: a snow lion emitting its valiant roar and a garuda spreading its sturdy wings—was needed to once again “spread the teachings far and wide.” The two envisioned healing the damage of the Maoist period by revealing terma—or treasure teachings traced to the 8th-century Indian master Padmasambhava, who is credited with a major role in establishing Buddhism in Tibet. As reincarnations of Yeshe Tsogyal and Namkhai Nyingpo, among the 25 main disciples of Padmasambhava, they had the distinctive pedigree to undertake such healing.

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