Jetsunma Ahkon Lhamo was born Alyce L. Zeoli in Brooklyn, New York, in 1949. She had neither grown up in a Buddhist culture nor received a classic Buddhist education. Yet she recalls a spiritual yearning for as long as she can remember. She prayed often for a way to fulfill the spiritual potential she felt. When she was 19, she had 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. In 1982 she began teaching what she had learned in her practice.
In 1985, she met her teacher, His Holiness the 3rd Penor Rinpoche, during his first visit to the United States. Two years later, Penor Rinpoche, having consulted with His Holiness Dilgo Khyentse Rinpoche and Dzongnang Rinpoche, agreed agreed that Alyce Zeoli was the reincarnation of Genyenma Akhon Lhamo, the sister of Rigdzin Kunzang Sherab, the First Throneholder of the Palyul lineage.
In 1988, His Holiness Penor Rinpoche traveled to Jetsunma’s center in Poolesville, MD, and officially enthroned her as a lineage holder of the Palyul tradition, giving her the name “Ahkon Norbu Lhamo” and the title “Jetsunma,” an honorific associated with Tara, the female Buddha. This marked the first time that a Western woman had been both recognized and enthroned in this way.
Later, in 1994, His Holiness Kusum Lingpa, a Nyingma master and terton (treasure revealer), further recognized Jetsunma as Lhacham Mandarava, the Indian consort of Padmasambhava. In 2004, His Holiness Ngawang Tenzin, the Dorje Lopon, or chief religious official, of Bhutan, reiterated this identification with Mandarava.
Jetsunma’s teaching style is perfect for a western audience. Her direct experiences allow her to speak directly to the minds of her students, with humor, insight and a deep understanding of the nature of mind. She has been able to convey some of the most esoteric of Dzogchen teachings to westerners in common language that is easily understood. She also teaches in practical ways that allow a student to practice compassion from the very beginning.
On September 24, 1988, Jetsunma Ahkon Lhamo became the first western woman to be both recognized as a “tulku” or reincarnate Lama, and enthroned as a Lineage Holder. His Holiness Penor Rinpoche, along with Ven. Gyatrul Rinpoche, Chojji Rinpoche, and Lama Jampa Rinpoche, were present for the ceremony. It took place during the three-month Rinchen Terdzod Empowerments, occurring for the first time in the west. The event was also attended by various national and international media.