A Life of Discipline, a Rainbow Death


Lobersing Nuns

A Life of Discipline, a Rainbow Death – 1986
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A flock of green parrots settle on the lantana brush. Looking up the hillside a gnarled, ancient tree frames the dense jungle. To its right a small chorten gleams white in the morning sun, brilliant and unearthly.

There rest the ashes of Ani Jetson Dolma, a woman whose awesome spiritual attainment has become a modern legend. The Tibetan Refugee Camp of Lobersing in the eastern ghats of Orissa, India, is alive with the sounds of morning chores: cows lowing, babies calling, and a crackle of breakfast fires. “When we first came to the camp from Tibet in the early ’60s, we did not know about her greatness,” explains my translator, Jamyang Dolma, as we enter her neighbor Senge-la’s sitting room. “She stayed by herself in a shack in the jungle always doing her prayers and meditation. She did not enter the camp and we were afraid of the jungle. Our lives were more difficult then.”

A small group of villagers and nuns gather about us to share their memories of the great to saint. “Ani Jetson remained isolated in her retreat for nearly two years,” a tall thoughtful woman shares. “One day a woodcutter chanced by her hut and wondered about her isolation. Troubled by family problems he requested a Mo (divination). The information she gave him was exact; his problems were quickly resolved. Soon everyone in the camp had heard his story.”

The people of the camps began turning to her for help. Without any kind of medical assistance, the heat, malarial insects, and the lack of adequate nutrition were a formidable challenge. “She kept a bottle full of water near her,” explained Senge-la with an infectious smile. “During her meditations she would blow on the water. When someone came to her for help she would give them a drop of that water. Only one drop of water could clear all kinds of diseases, even of our cattle.”

To the women she was priceless beyond measure. “Bearing children was a dangerous ordeal,” said Tseten Dolma, Senge-la’s wife, mother of five. “During the last stages of our pregnancy we would go to Ani Jetsun with some butter and she would blow on it and say mantras. When we went into labor we would eat some of that butter. Immediately the baby would be born. The butter we ate would be found on the top of the baby’s head. For those years no babies or mothers were lost.”

“We could talk freely to her,” Jamyang added. “She was a woman so we women could tell our troubles freely to her; she would understand.” Senge-la’s brother nodded his head slowly. “Her Mo was always accurate. She could help you find what was lost. She could tell the outcome of events. And always she advised us to avoid harming others. She told us that it would bring peace and from that peace we could experience the depth of spirituality.”

“She saved the crops one year,” mused a farmer, kneading his work-worn hands. When we first arrived the local tribals were wild. They dressed in leaves and hunted for their food. There were elephants, bear and wild boar. When our fields were planted and the corn ripening, the animals would come to feed and the tribals would chase them, trampling everything underfoot. Ani Jetsun had us bring her some earth from the field. She blew on it and we scattered it throughout the plots. We never had a problem again.”

Ani Jetsun still did not make herself readily available. She rarely left her hut. When she did it would be in the middle of the night to go to the large stupa at the edge of the camp and pray. She remained in retreat allowing the villagers an opportunity for brief interviews only a couple of times during the year.

“Often when we would visit she would have snakes crawling around and over her,” said Ani Kata, one of her disciples. “Poisonous snakes. Cobras. She had no fear. Sitting with her one day I watched a big frog hopping across the room. One of the Cobras made to strike but Ani Jetsun brushed him away so the frog could escape. Bears would come to eat the torma (ritual cake) after her ceremonies. Mosquitoes would not drink her blood. Even the hyenas left her in peace.” “Her body was golden, radiant,” added another nun. “She barely ate – only a bowl of milk with a little wheat flour, and yet she was big and fleshy,” Jamyang laughed.” She never kept anything for herself. We would bring her offerings of all kinds of foods, our favorite delicacies. She gave it all away.”

Children’s voices call from the dusty path, “She’s here; she’s here.” A neat, self-contained young woman greets us. Changchup Cherton lived with Ani Jetsun in the jungle for seven months studying meditation. To her, Ani Jetsun shared some of her story. “She was born to a very rich Nomad family of Redding, an eastern district of Tibetan. No need to worry, she would live in luxury for the rest of her life. At 16 her parents arranged for her to get married. For one month she considered her prospects. Marriage. Children. It seemed like a world of misery to her. Ending in death. She worried about her ignorance of the dharma; sure that hell was her inevitable destination. She ran away from home determined to acquire the teachings she craved.”

From the back room came the low mutter of prayers. The children pass close, wide-eyed. Changchup continued. “For many days Ani Jetsun traveled alone unmindful of the dangers or difficulties. She made her way to Nyingma Shungse, a nunnery near Lhasa and offered her hair to the abbottess, Lojin Rinpoche. After some years of study and practice she went on pilgrimage. She spent nine years in retreat in one of Jetsun Milarepa’s caves. She went to Shingdu Rinpoche’s monastery and did several three-year retreats. She embraced three months of Dzog Chen Munsom, a retreat in total darkness – never seeing light of any kind, totally isolated from any contact. Devcholin followed this, subsisting on one consecrated stone a day. No food. Only one small pebble for 90 days. She went to Mount Kailash and circumambulated this great and holy mountain13 times by doing full prostrations all the way around the mountain.

After the war with the Chinese broke out she heard that Shingdu Rinpoche had gone to India. She joined him and they traveled to Orissa. He settled at Dejung Rinpoche’s retreat and monastery center. She and her attendant built a shack in the jungle. Several years later Shingdu Rinpoche passed away.”

The sun is setting golden in the camp and we join the villagers in a twilight stroll. Two old ladies pass us, prayer wheels spinning. A young mother with her baby strapped to her back holds the hand of an old man who clutches his beads, muttering his prayers intently. Jamtrol Rinpoche’s story of Ani Jetsun’s death in 1979 comes to mind. He is Shingdu Rinpoche’s brother who was living in the camp at the time of her death. “Ani Jetsun told me one day that her attendant was getting old and it was getting difficult for her to attend to her work. ‘My time has come’, Ani said. ‘If I die it is a good time.’ Two days later she fell ill. The next morning many of us heard voices like strange birds we have never heard before. The few hours later her attendant informed us of her passing. We went to her hut. Ani Jetsun had assumed the same posture of Shakyamuni Buddha when he died, laying on her right side with her head propped up with her right hand. Her face was the image of peace. For three days and three nights we attended the body. It remained warm, no sign of decay. It shrank somewhat. And on the day before the cremation, a thin stream of red from one nostril and white from the other flowed. These are signs of great yogic attainment.

When the fire was put to her pyre, out of the spotless blue sky a gentle rain fell. Many rainbows pierced the smoke. Five enormous birds circled above until the body was completely consumed and then they vanished. They were the five dakinis, her escorts to the pure land. In her ashes countless rigsels (precious relics) were found.”

The relics were distributed amongst the Lamas of the camps. During troubled times the villagers may seek them out, confident of their power to heal and uplift. In her death as in her life, Ani Jetsun Dolma radiates a wealth of blessings- the results of her dedicated practice. She was not born to greatness, the people of the camps reportedly told me. She became great through her own efforts.

They refer to her as Rinpoche, Precious One. They cherish their memories of her and pray for her quick rebirth among them. The inspiration of her life continues to glow, white and brilliant, like her cherton in the morning sun.

Prema Dasara