by Gussie Fauntleroy

Listening to the Venerable Tsoknyi Rinpoche present aspects of Tibetan Buddhist teachings is akin to listening to a post-doctorate quantum physicist explain complex theorems in common everyday language that regular people can understand—and even chuckle about. That’s one of the distinctive qualities that make Tsoknyi (pronounced Sony) Rinpoche among the most beloved of contemporary Tibetan Buddhism teachers, especially among Western students, notes Crestone area resident Esteban Hollander. Esteban is executive administrative director of the Pundarika Foundation, which supports Tsoknyi Rinpoche’s teaching and humanitarian work. Esteban’s wife, Tressa Hollander, serves as Tsoknyi Rinpoche’s scheduling and travel assistant.

Pundarika’s most visible presence in Crestone/Baca is the beautiful Enlightenment Stupa (Jangchub Chorten) with its shining golden spire overlooking the Valley just off of Camino Baca Grande. Surrounded by colorful prayer flags, the magnificent white sacred structure sits on 55 acres of wooded retreat land whose name, Yeshe Rangsal, means “self-cognizant wakefulness.” The stupa was consecrated in 2005 and is dedicated to Tsoknyi Rinpoche’s late father and primary early teacher, Tulku Urgyen Rinpoche.

A winding path from the stupa leads to a shrine for the wisdom deity Dorje Yudronma, whose compassion manifests as protectress of the land. Farther up the hill, the seasonal Shrine Hall/Tent accommodates large group practice and teachings during summer retreats. A small, simple house near the Shrine Hall/Tent site is home to Tsoknyi Rinpoche when he’s not traveling or at his residence in Nepal. Funding permitting, Pundarika’s aspiration is to eventually build several retreat cabins and a three-year retreat center on the land. “My vision for Yeshe Rangsal is a place where practice and study will be the means for us to become sane human beings,” Tsoknyi Rinpoche has written. “From the ground of basic sanity, deepening our practice in retreat, we develop into accomplished yogis and yoginis on the path to enlightenment.”

Tsoknyi Rinpoche is a renowned master of the Drukpa Kagyu and Nyingma traditions of Tibetan Buddhism and holder of the Tsoknyi Lineage. The first Tsoknyi Rinpoche is said to have achieved enlightenment in the mid-1800s. Afterward he espoused the then-radical concept that women deserve equal access to the highest teachings in Tibetan Buddhism. As a result, some 26 monasteries were established in Tibet by means of his support and that of surrounding communities, providing spiritual training and oversight, shelter, food and basic medical care for more than 2,000 female practitioners.

Tsokni Rinpoche At the age of eight, Tsoknyi Rinpoche was recognized as the third incarnation in his lineage. (The second died in the early 20th century.) Born into a family of distinguished rinpoches in a village near Katmandu, Nepal, he received intensive training in the dharma—the true nature of reality according to the Buddha—from his father and other masters. For the past 20-plus years he has been teaching the dharma, including meditation and nature of mind practice, in the West. Pundarika sponsors these efforts, as well as providing ongoing support for the Tibetan and Nepalese nuns of the Tsoknyi Lineage, nuns “renowned for their spiritual accomplishments,” Esteban notes.

Tsoknyi Rinpoche’s approach to teaching has evolved over the years as he has gained a deeper understanding of Western culture and thinking. Initially he focused on recognition of mind nature and clarity. Then he realized that for the often overly-active Western mind, he needed to guide practitioners in an experiential awareness of being in the body and opening the heart. (He describes the average Westerner’s mental activity as “like CNN,” with news, stock updates, sports highlights and a breaking news crawler all on the screen at once.) Tsoknyi Rinpoche’s newest, just-released book, Open Heart, Open Mind: Awakening the Power of Essence Love (Crown, 2012), synthesizes his earlier approaches through what he calls “essence love,” the healthy, open, truly alive natural state of being human.

Because of his highly perceptive understanding of Western culture, Tsoknyi Rinpoche has masterfully learned to incorporate humor into his teachings, Esteban says. “He’s a naturally gifted comic. He teaches insights by making you laugh, reflecting how people are, but in a gentle, compassionate way. He’ll tell stories and jokes and get people laughing, so they settle into their bodies and enjoy the teachings.” At the same time, these teachings reflect the depth and vastness of Tibetan Buddhism’s age-old wisdom. “He’s got tremendous training,” Esteban points out. “But he wants us to tame our busy minds and relax into the sweetness and beauty of the dharma.”

A weeklong retreat, open to all, takes place Aug. 10-16 at Pundarika’s Shrine Hall/Tent. Tsoknyi Rinpoche will guide participants in developing essence love in all aspects of life. Registration for the retreat is open through July 30. Month-long retreats also are held annually in various locations, with the next one in Crestone set for the summer of 2014. For more information, contact the Hollanders at 256-4011 or visit the foundation’s recently renamed/revamped website, Tsoknyi Rinpoche’s new book is available through the website and other outlets.