In December 1978, a 28 year old American woman, Suzi Joy Albright (ordained as Karma Wangmo), entered a twelve-year solitary retreat in a small hut, she had helped build with her own hands in the grounds of Karma Triyana Dharmachakra, His Holiness the 16th Gyalwa Karmapa’s monastery in Woodstock, New York. She had already accomplished three retreats of Ngöndro or preliminary practices and two hundred days of Nyungney fasting practice. In an interview published in Chö Yang 3, the present Tai Situ Rinpoche referred to her as ‘the best practitioner’.
That a Westerner would have the courage and single-mindedness to accomplish such a long retreat, rare even among Tibetan practitioners, necessarily gave rise to much curiosity. Occasional word would slip out through Monastery staffers indicative of the intensity of Wangmo’s practice. Khenpo Karthar, the resident Abbot and Wangmo’s Retreat Master had likened her to Milarepa; no matter how difficult the practices given her she never complained, but responded only with joy. Nonetheless, by late 1990 as the time grew near for Wangmo to end her retreat, many people wonder what kind of person would emerge?
Wangmo tall and sturdily built, with hands and feet that are more workman-like than feminine, she nonetheless gives an overall impression of grace. But perhaps her most striking feature is her emotional independence. Her detachment is so total that it is disconcerting.
When I remarked, for instance, that it might be difficult for her to do her daily practices before strangers during the three-day bus journey on which she embarked immediately following this interview, she dismissed the subject swiftly with the remark: “Yes, but a commitment is a commitment, that’s all.” The finality of her tone was a reminder of how often most of us let worldly considerations sideline Dharma practice.
Your path has been highly unusual, especially for a Western practitioner. Did you receive any religious training, Christian or other, as a child?
My family wasn’t affiliated with any religious organisation at all. In Arizona where I grew up the only exposure I had to religion was through the Mexican population and the Mormons. But the sight of crucifixes and of people going door-to-door preaching didn’t appeal to me. My impression of religion was that it was a blue collar thing based on superstition. There was nothing inviting about it.
Did you at least have personal spiritual leanings at that time?
I remember in grammar school I got into this religious bent and felt the need for prayer and a sense of higher power, but it only lasted a short time. I don’t know what brought it on.
As a child, did you think a lot about helping others?
I don’t think noticeably more than anyone else. What did interest me was always the mind, how it functioned and what caused it to dysfunction. When I eventually went to the University (Arizona State) I majored in psychology but in my junior year I left to travel with the intention of being away one semester. As it turned out, I kept travelling for three years.
Did you go to the East because you were already interested in Buddhism?
No, at that point it was just for the adventure. I love to travel, being a nomad at heart, so I went around the world through Europe, North America, Asia, the South Pacific and so on. While I worked in Australia, a friend with whom I had gone overland through Asia went back to Nepal where she became involved with the Buddhists. I had no interest in Buddhism, but after finishing my degree at Arizona State I went to Lama Thubten Yeshe’s centre in Kopan just to see her. This was in 1974.
When I arrived, I was completely turned off by the whole scene. Many people there seemed unhealthy mentally and physically. I remember asking my friend, “Is this Buddhism?”, and thinking, “If this is what meditation is about, who needs it?” Nonetheless, I attended the month-long course in Kopan taught by Lama Zopa. At the time my attitude was that I was strictly an attendee, I was no way involved as a participant. For this reason, I was slow to start prostrating. It just seemed to be one more trip these people were into. But when Lama Yeshe walked in, I swear he was just glowing. You immediately sensed that this person knew something that most people don’t. My father was a university professor, so I had met a lot of people who were educated, but none who were wise. But Lama Yeshe was as wise as one could ever get. His compassion and wisdom were so overt that you were really struck by his presence. A lot of people can talk Dharma, but they don’t have that effect on you. I always regarded him as a Buddha. If he weren’t a Buddha, I don’t know what could be. It was after he came that I began making prostrations.
When did you decide to take refuge?
Lama Yeshe was giving refuge and lay precepts at the end of that Kopan course, but I had no intention of making commitments. However, one day I was taking this Tibetan mastiff for a walk, and along came another huge dog who leaned up against me, as if seeking protection. The three of us were standing there overlooking the beautiful valley with a herd of water buffalo. It was like a Disney scene. All those animals seemed to be looking at me, reminding me of fortunate human rebirth, so that I felt the obligation to take refuge and one vow: not to kill.
When I ran back and asked to take refuge, I was told I had to take two vows. That immediately broke my stride! I had no intention of disrupting my lifestyle to that extent. Up until then I had led the life of a happy hedonist. Growing up in the sixties you had all the options in terms of sense pleasures. I immediately ruled out vowing not to take intoxicants and not to engage in sexual misconduct, and instead settled on vowing not to steal, as I had never particularly enjoyed it! But it was the animals who inspired all this. They have always had a big impact as far as motivating me to do the practice – more so than most people.
I hate to think why I have such close contact with animals; maybe we were even closer in our last lives! When I later did Nyungne for seven months in a tree house not far from Woodstock, I had a huge Persian cat with me. He was deaf, so when I did Chenrezig practice he would sit on my lap and I would play my bell over his head without bothering him.
How did you come to take nun’s vows?
It all happened rather rapidly. After I attended that first Kopan course in November 1974, I did a Lam Rim group retreat for several months, then a solitary Vajrasattva retreat in Dharamsala for three months. In fact, since that time I have been in retreat almost constantly with only brief spells in between. In November 1975 I returned to Kopan and received ten vows and robes from Lama Yeshe with the thought that I would go to Dharamsala and take ordination in the Gelugpa tradition with the Dalai Lama. But around March 1976 the Karmapa came to offer a month-long cycle of Kagyu wangs. I attended that with Lama Yeshe’s blessing, and decided to be ordained by the Karmapa in the Kagyu tradition.
So in one year’s time you went from not wanting even to take two vows to being ordained. Was it difficult to make so radical a transition in so short a time?
We don’t know where we have come from before this life, but I am sure many of us have very strong Buddhist connections from the past. Obviously, in other lives I was very connected with the Dharma, so there was really no conscious decision on my part. Situations and circumstances just arose so that the retreats were there and I was there, and everything fell into place as far as my doing them. So I was propelled to follow in this direction, and there were no particular obstacles. I didn’t feel myself especially worthy of all this, but I was aware that I was meant to be doing it. When I was in retreat it was the only time that I felt I was doing what I should be doing with my life. It even transcended contentment because it’s so natural. With contentment there is a certain amount of self-consciousness involved, but with the retreat situation it was a natural thing to be doing. Maybe this seems odd coming from the place I was in, but in another sense, being obsessive-compulsive about sense pleasures can be helpful if you’re doing practice. What has driven you in one direction can be redirected.
Beyond this, I am the cold turkey type. I cannot move in moderation. I remember Lama Yeshe using the phrase, “Integrate Dharma into your life.” In my life that would be like mixing tar and water. So I would either have to give up the one to do the other, or I would have to forget the Dharma. And there was a side of myself which would have preferred that! But the Dharma takes all the fun out of samsara. You’re left with ignorance, but knowing enough to make you miserable. I never wanted to be a nun, but ordination seemed part of the process. Milarepa said, “If you want to do something useful with your life, follow in my footsteps.” I really believe that. So that is what determined my path. But I still don’t relate to being a nun. I see other ordained people, and I think of them as nuns, but I don’t particularly relate to that. I could never live in a monastic setting. I’m basically a loner, an extroverted introvert.
There were several tragic events in your family: your father’s suicide and your brother’s death in Vietnam. Did these have any bearing on the life you have chosen?
I don’t think that was a determining factor. Ordination was something that transcended this particular lifetime. But it gave the teachings more impact. It’s true of everyone that when tragedy hits close to home, the idea of attachment and death becomes clear. You see the futility of relationships whether they were very attached or unpleasant. They all end. We waste such tremendous energy on things so short-lived.
Do you care to share your impressions of Gyalwa Karmapa, who became your root Lama?
Nice situations happened, but it is probably better not to discuss them because if you do, they lose their significance. But it was always easy to be near him, literally and otherwise. Actually, I didn’t see him that often, but he always appeared at the exact moment when you needed direction. For instance, he came to my retreat hut KTD when I was considering how long I should stay in retreat. I thought, five minutes with His Holiness, and I can get this settled. And that was about how long it took for him to give me permission to stay in retreat for twelve years.
What was your motivation for entering a twelve-year retreat?
In December 1978 I went in with the intention of doing a three-year retreat. Khenpo Karthar, KTD’s Abbot, had told me, “You build a hut, and I will teach you.” So I worked as a health aide at Woodstock while doing my third Ngöndro, and the money I earned from that, plus contributions, made it possible for me to build a hut with the help of volunteers for just a few hundred dollars. As far as extending the time for twelve years, there is a twelve-year cycle in the Tibetan calendar, and Milarepa meditated in retreats for twelve years. I felt that, given the opportunity and KTD’s kindness in supporting me, it would be a wonderful thing to do. On some other level I’m sure it was in the game place long before it surfaced in my mind, because His Holiness seemed to have the same thing in view.
During that time did you experience any of the inner or outer obstacles many yogis normally encounter in retreat?
In all honesty, no. I was very fortunate because I was never really ill, which is unusual over a twelve-year period. Physically I was fine, and mentally everything went as well as I could hope [this with a laugh]. Of course, I could hear the Monastery being built from day one, but the noises weren’t a problem because they become so familiar. I also want to say that anyone who, like myself, has Khenpo Karthar as a Retreat Master is very fortunate, and need look no farther. The man is about as pure as anyone could possibly be, and about as wise as anyone could hope to find in a teacher.
Along more general lines, you have told me things indicating that you had an unusual turn of mind even before you were involved in Buddhism – for instance, that you always looked on the idea of a limitless lifespan with distaste. Was this view brought on by experiencing a great deal of personal suffering?
Death always seemed like a great relief to me. Old age was obviously not an appealing situation to be in because the body fails. And I’ve always had the relationship with my body that when it fails on me it’s incredibly frustrating. I admire people who have lost legs or are quadriplegic, yet who cope. I would find that excruciating. On the other hand, staying young forever would also be boring, like California weather. No seasons, all sunshine. But it wasn’t suffering that made me feel this way. I’m not one of those who say that life is miserable, because it certainly isn’t. Life can be wonderful, people can be happy, there is love, and that type of thing. You don’t have to suffer if you don’t want to. If you move fast enough, you can have sense pleasures out of your ears! But that just becomes constant input; people who live like that become zombied out. And anyway, the highs are so short-lived. So the main thing that gave me pause was, what is the purpose of life? Each of its phases is so temporal, and anyhow you wouldn’t want any of them lasting forever.
Out of your long years of retreat experience, do you have any realisations you can share in the areas of emptiness and One Taste?
The realisation has to be something experienced. All the talk in the world won’t help someone understand what emptiness is about; only meditation will. It can be more of a hindrance than a help to understand emptiness intellectually. There has been a lot said about emptiness, but obviously very little experienced because there are few enlightened beings.
After being in retreat for so long, which involved a commitment not to see anyone or be seen, you emerged in December 1990 to find many people present, some of whom had come from afar to attend the ceremony that was given for you. Could you describe your feelings about such a radical change of situation?
During retreat, Khenpo Karthar had said, “Pretend you are a thief hiding.” So for twelve years I was attuned to that. I remember seeing my reflection once in the burner of my stove dodging, thinking I had seen someone. Occasionally I would by accident catch sight of a foot or arm of someone coming to leave food at the hut door, but that was all. There is a necessary intensity in maintaining that sort of solitude for retreat practices. Then, suddenly, you come out and see all those people and they see you! It was a blatant antithesis to the way I had been living, yet not wholly unfamiliar. You just adopt to situations as they arise. Being in solitude so long, however, results in your identity becoming very rarefied. Many people living at KTD when I came out had not been there when I went in. Their only contact with me was my dirty dishes and laundry left on my doorstep. I knew that I could drop dead and the only way they would know is that the dishes wouldn’t have been left outside! Probably a lot of people who had been feeding this thing were curious as to what it was that would emerge.
You strike me as the most detached person I ever met. Was this the cause of your moving comfortably into retreat situations, or is it the result of long years of solitary practice?
Growing up, I was as socially occupied as anyone, but I was always comfortable alone. The only thing uncomfortable about it was that you felt you shouldn’t be comfortable! I was never particularly needy in relationships. People were usually more attached to me that I was to them. I was never attached to anyone that I couldn’t leave – very easily. I consider attachment to people worse than attachment to vices because with the former you are hindering others, dragging them down. It becomes difficult for them to do Dharma practice if they are tied by relationships.
While in retreat, did you feel at some level connected to the world, or were you sufficiently in another space that re-emerging was a shock?
I always felt that being in retreat was a group project. I occasionally received moving letters from people saying how inspired they were to know I was doing the practice, and that it was helpful. I’ve never taken any personal interest in my practice. The twelve-year retreat hopefully inspired others to do it. It didn’t matter that it was I, or how poorly I was doing it. The point was that it was being done. I knew that for twelve years nothing must interfere I felt I had to do this. It was just a minor contribution to the cosmos, for what it’s worth. But it was not just something I was doing; we were all rooting for one another. Those people who supported me while I was in retreat were also creating good karma.
But socially speaking, was it a shock to see how crime, for instance, had increased since you went in?
Actually, I’m impressed with the qualities I see in people who aren’t even Buddhist. They have a tremendous amount of compassion, more in many cases than a lot of people who have been Buddhist longer than they should admit. I think that in many cases there aren’t more problems than there used to be, but that people are more aware of them. H. H. the Dalai Lama made a good point [at the recent Kalachakra initiation given in New York] that the fact that people are so shocked by the news is an indication of how compassionate we all are. We blare headlines about these atrocious nightmares because people are disturbed by it. For that reason it sells papers. But there’s hardly a problem, no matter how far in left field it might be, that doesn’t have its own support group. Every issue that could possibly come up is being addressed.
You have chosen not to be called Ani-la. What is your reason for this?
Ani simply means nun. Among Tibetans it is not disparaging, but just as people don’t like being called ‘boy’ or ‘girl’, I don’t like being called Ani. I regard it as sort of demeaning, but that’s just my take on it. Anyway, I never really related to being a nun. Wangmo is the shortened version of the name I was given at ordination. I’m not into titles. I think it’s perfectly all right to call someone by their name rather than a title. That’s comfortable with me.
How do you view the status of women practitioners?
I think there are more women practicing in the West than in the East, and that their situation is very good. No one is going to stop anyone from obtaining enlightenment. All that’s necessary is that one be able to receive the teachings, and that one’s own karmic situation be favourable as far as having one’s own body and mind together enough to be able to practice. It’s up to the individual; no one is going to be enlightened by proxy. If someone wants to put forth the effort in the hope of benefiting all sentient beings and attaining enlightenment, no one is going to stop them. Some of the strongest practitioners I’ve met are women because everything is telling them that they don’t really have to do it. So the women who say they are going to do it are usually very determined and diligent.
Do you have any sense of your role in the Dharma in the future?
Lama Yeshe told me in a special moment, “You are going to teach. Expect that.” So I anticipated that, though getting up in front of a group of people and lecturing is not my thing. I never received the formal training one gets in a monastic setting where you go to school for many years, so I probably know a lot less about Buddhist philosophy than most people who walk into the room. Therefore, who am I to be lecturing? But I do feel obliged to do something. When you’ve been at this for twelve years, people need you to be available in whatever capacity. Before coming out of retreat, I did ask Khenpo Karthar if I could stay in retreat for the rest of my life. He said, “You can if you want to.” I knew I should come out, though, because my elderly mother wanted to see me, and maybe some other people would want to have me around for whatever reason. Also, I am one who basically likes to expose sentient beings to Dharma. If a fly lands on my leg, I think it’s auspicious for both of us, and I say, let’s make the most of this situation.
There will soon be a three-year retreat starting at KTD’s new retreat centre, and it seems I’ll be helping in some capacity.
During your retreat years you had a sign on the door of your hut reading: Buddha or Bust. Do you care to comment on how far you’ve gone towards that goal?
That’s still the slogan! I don’t by any means pretend to be enlightened, but even intellectually you know what the goal is, you can see that developing. I may be a fool, but at least I have enough sense to keep practicing. You never get to a state where you say, “I’m too impure to practice.” You’re not too sick to take medicine! When I met Kyabje Sakya Trizin, he said, “You must be realised since you did a twelve-year retreat.” I replied, “I just keep practicing.”
Is there anything you would particularly like to say to people who might read this and other practitioners?
Only as a sort of pep talk to all people practicing all over the cosmos who sometimes feel removed, especially women, who can feel a little estranged from the Buddhist male hierarchy, there is room for everyone, and it is important that everybody practice and that no one be estranged from anyone. There are people who can relate to whatever problem you are experiencing. It is helpful to stay in touch with one another, network if necessary. If you remember that your motivation is to benefit all sentient beings, you cannot go wrong. If you’re doing it for yourself you can get bored with it, or decide it’s a hobby you don’t want to pursue anymore. As long as you’re clear in your heart, it doesn’t matter how poorly you’re doing it, just keep doing it and everything else will eventually fall into place.
Do people find you greatly changed since you have come out of retreat?
When I returned from India as a ‘meditator’ in 1976, my sister said she expected these profound changes, but it was just the same old fool that had come back! That’s the secret, of course.