The Buddhist world was surprised to learn in 1987 that an American woman named Alyce Zeoli (born in Brooklyn in 1949) had been formally recognized as a tulku, or intentional reincarnation. She was given the name “Ahkon Norbu Lhamo,” and the title “Jetsunma,” an honorific associated with Tara, the female Buddha. Her recognition and later enthronement by His Holiness Penor Rinpoche marked the first time ever that a Western woman had been so recognized.
Jetsunma had neither grown up in a Buddhist culture nor received any Buddhist education. She recalls a spiritual yearning for as long as she can remember, but found no fulfilling religious institutions, or movements, or teachers. She prayed often for a way to fulfill the spiritual potential she felt. Then, when she was 19 and a young bride on a farm outside Asheville, North Carolina, answers began to come, in the form of a series of dreams that offered her very precise instructions on how to meditate. She followed these methods that arose in her mind, and practiced for the next 12 years. With customary humility, she has said that she felt these methods had produced “some good result” in the end.
Looking to share the benefits she herself had experienced in meditation, she became involved with a non-denominational spiritual group in North Carolina called the Black Mountain Light Center, but soon relocated to the Washington, D.C., area. Although she herself has said, “I never hung out a shingle,” people she met began asking her for informal consultations. Soon word of mouth spread and a group got together to ask her for more formal teachings. She agreed.
In the beginning, her teachings used Western metaphysical and mystical Christian language familiar to her eclectic gathering of students. Her teachings followed one dominant theme: that the liberation of the mind was hampered by the ignorant concept of “separateness” and that once the ultimately true state of “unity” had been realized, this realization would unlock universal love and compassion. Within this unified state, prayer for others had transformative power. Committed to putting this power to work for the benefit of others, she and her students began the 24 Hour Prayer Vigil in April 1985, which continues unbroken to the present day. The Prayer Vigil is dedicated to the end of suffering for all sentient beings.
In 1984, Jetsunma’s group hosted a Tibetan man named Kunzang, who was in America selling carpets and seeking sponsors for young Tibetan Buddhist monks in India. His presentation so moved the group that they sponsored all 70 of the monks for whom he was seeking support. It just so happened that Kunzang was the main attendant of His Holiness Penor Rinpoche and it was the young monks under the care of His Holiness that the group adopted.
The next year, Penor Rinpoche made his first visit to North America. Seeing Penor Rinpoche for the first time, Jetsunma has said, was overwhelming, “like meeting your own heart and mind.” Penor Rinpoche stayed at Jetsunma’s home for a week. During that time, he interviewed her and many of her students about what was being taught and practiced. At the end of the visit, he said that from his point of view her teachings were the complete wisdom and compassion teachings of Mahayana Buddhism, the foundation for Vajrayana practice. He said further that for such teachings to have arisen spontaneously in Jetsunma’s mind indicated that she must have accomplished these teachings very well in many previous lifetimes and made strong and pure aspirations. He gave the students Refuge and Bodhisattva Vows, the precepts that represent formal entry into the Buddhist path, and continued on his tour.
Soon after, Jetsunma sought out the lama who had invited Penor Rinpoche to America. She visited this lama, the Venerable Gyatrul Rinpoche, at his temple in Ashland, Oregon. Again, the connection was powerful and immediate. Later, she would discover that Gyatrul Rinpoche was the brother of the 17th century Ahkon Lhamo. Jetsunma considers His Holiness Penor Rinpoche and Ven. Gyatrul Rinpoche to be her two root lamas.
Meanwhile, having met Alyce Zeoli, His Holiness quietly conferred with other high lamas for two years, including the previous Supreme Head of the Nyingmapa, His Holiness Dilgo Khyentse Rinpoche, and Dzongnang Rinpoche. They agreed that Alyce Zeoli was indeed the reincarnation of Genyenma Ahkon Lhamo, the sister of Rigdzin Kunzang Sherab, the First Throneholder of the Palyul lineage. (The title “Genyenma” indicates an accomplished female practitioner who is not ordained as a nun.) The first Ahkon Lhamo spent most of her life in meditation in a cave far above the monastery and was regarded as a female emanation of enlightened mind. Upon her death, she left a miraculous relic that became one of the most cherished at Palyul.
In 1988, His Holiness Penor Rinpoche traveled to Jetsunma’s center in Poolesville, MD, which he named Kunzang Palyul Odsal Changchub Choling (KPC). There he conferred, for the first time in the West, the entire transmission of the Rinchen Terdzod, the vast collection of the revealed teachings of Guru Padmasambhava, a process that took four months. During this visit, His Holiness enthroned Jetsunma Akhon Lhamo. Her recognition and enthronement marked the first time ever that a Western woman had been so recognized.
During that time, Jetsunma and her students built the 36 foot Enlightenment Stupa as an offering to Penor Rinpoche. In addition, 25 of her students took the traditional vows to become novice monks and nuns. Jetsunma’s ordained sangha remains one of the largest communities of ordained Buddhist Westerners in North America.
More recently, Jetsunma has been further recognized as an emanation of Lhacham Mandarava, the Indian consort of Padmasambhava. His Holiness Kusum Lingpa, a Nyingma master and terton, or revealer of hidden treasures, identified Jetsunma in this way after meeting her in 1994. The recognition prompted Jetsunma and 25 students to undertake a pilgrimage in 1996 to the sites in India and Nepal associated with Mandarava’s miraculous activity Mandi, Maratika Cave, Tso Pema and for her students to find and sponsor the translation of her life story from Tibetan, published as The Lives and Liberation of Princess Mandarava in 1998. This identification with Mandarava was later reiterated by His Holiness Ngawang Tenzin, at the time the Dorje Lopon, or chief religious official of Bhutan, who first visited KPC in 2004. His Holiness Khenpo Jigmey Phuntsok also spoke about Jetsunma during a visit to KPC in 1993.
Jetsunma founded the World Prayer Center in 1985, known since 1988 as Kunzang Odsal Palyul Changchub Choling (KPC), the name given by Penor Rinpoche. Jetsunma is the Spiritual Director of KPC. Since her recognition and enthronement, Jetsunma has guided the center’s transition to a more conventional Vajrayana Buddhist path following the Palyul monastic tradition. Toward that end, she has hosted all of the major lamas from Palyul Monastery, as well as many others from the Nyingma and Kagyu lineages, to give the traditional transmissions and commentaries.
Jetsunma Akhon Lhamo has received empowerments, oral transmissions, and pith instructions including the entire cycle of the Rinchen Terzod, Nyingma Kama, and Namcho. Jetsunma received the Kalachakra from His Holiness Dilgo Khyentse Rinpoche at Bylakuppe, the Dudjom Tersar from Ven. Gyaltrul Rinpoche; and the Ratna Lingpa and Nying Thik Yabshi from Yangthang Tulku.
Jetsunma herself has continued to teach, demonstrating an intuitive grasp of both the meaning of all levels of the Buddha’s teachings and how to make them fully understandable to the Western student. In addition to the traditional activities of a lama – teaching the Dharma, building stupas, and guiding meditation retreats – Jetsunma has also evolved an array of unconventional compassionate projects. She has long championed animal rescue, resulting in the formation of Tara’s Babies, Inc., and Garuda Aviary; her students do an outreach program for Buddhist Study groups in the Maryland State Prison system; she creates music both meaningful and danceable; and she is one of the first Nyingma lamas to send representatives into Mongolia to help with the post-Communist revival of their ancient Buddhist culture.
THE KAPALA RELIC
After Genyenma Ahkon Lhamo passed away, her body was cremated in a grand public prayer ceremony that is conducted for high lamas’ passage. At the height of the ceremony, her kapala, or top part of her skull, rose out the fire and flew toward the monastery, three kilometers away. Everyone saw this, and it caused great wonder. But the monks in the main temple were even more astonished when they saw the kapala fly in and come to rest at the foot of her brother’s throne. Upon inspection, it was discovered that the inside displayed miraculously produced images, including the sacred syllable “AH” at the very crown. This syllable represents realization of the ultimate truth of the empty nature of self and phenomena. The Ahkon Lhamo kapala became the most sacred relic at Palyul Monastery, only used in the most powerful rituals.
The Communist Chinese invaded Tibet in 1950, and HH Penor Rinpoche was forced to flee to India in 1959. In the need to travel lightly, he was not able to bring Ahkon Lhamo’s kapala. Later, during the Chinese Cultural Revolution, the people of the Palyul area were forced to destroy Palyul Monastery. Tragically, most of the kapala was smashed into dust. One piece remained intact, however the crown piece bearing the syllable “Ah” . A Tibetan man on the scene understood what it was, and when no one was looking, quietly hid it away inside his clothing.
This man wore the relic in an amulet on his body for the next 20 years. In 1987, just after Penor Rinpoche had formally recognized an American woman named Alyce Zeoli as the tulku, or reincarnation, of Ahkon Lhamo, His Holiness was able to return to Palyul in Tibet. There, the man who had rescued the last piece of Ahkon Lhamo’s kapala relic approached him and related the whole story. Penor Rinpoche rejoiced and asked if the man would please give the relic to him. He said that Ahkon Lhamo’s incarnation had been reborn in America and the following year he intended to travel there to conduct the enthronement ceremony for her. He felt that this relic would be a most auspicious gift. Though the man was heartbroken to lose this treasure, of course he gave it to Penor Rinpoche.
The next year, 1988, Penor Rinpoche presented the kapala relic, which he had preserved in a crystal lotus, to Jetsunma Ahkon Lhamo (her new name) upon the occasion of her enthronement. At that time he related to Jetsunma and her students that as a young tulku at Palyul Monastery, he had held the full kapala at major prayer events. He said that even as a child in Tibet he used to make aspirational prayers that if the reincarnation of Ahkon Lhamo were in the world, that he might be the one to find her. And so it happened.
The Ahkon Lhamo kapala relic has been enshrined on the Three Kaya altar at Kunzang Palyul Choling in Poolesville, MD. This holy object indicates the highest realization of complete mastery over phenomena. It is displayed to the public for viewing and devotion only on the most sacred days of the Buddhist calendar and for special teaching events conferred by Jetsunma Ahkon Lhamo, KPC’s Spiritual Director.