Ralang and Gyaltsap, Rinpoche

From Mirik, we headed out of West Bengal, India for Sikkim, but we never really went down to the lowlands again. Instead, we clung along the mountain roads from village to town and on. We were heading for the Sikkim border and then on to Ralang and the monastery of His Eminence Gyaltsap, Rinpoche, one of the principle regents of the Karma Kagyu Lineage. We drove through vast mountains of tea gardens, tea plantations, misty-mountain driving in fog and through clouds, a vast rain forest, insects singing, ferns growing— wet, wet, and everwhere green. This was the tail end of the monsoon season and the rains were beginning to diminish. And the roads got worse, with landslides and entire sections of road missing. Local road crews, with shovels and picks, were everywhere, trying to keep up with the sliding mud. As we traveled the final stretch to the monastery, such a large section of road had slid away that we had to creep with breath held over what road remained, clinging to the cliff-side in our jeep, with one set of wheels edging over the space where the road was missing. I didn—t care much for that.

Gyaltsap, Rinpoche—s new monastery is magnificent and huge. Almost brand new, it stands out there in the mountains of Sikkim, right in the middle of what seemed like a rain forest. Huge beetles (5 inches long!) and large moths were everywhere to be seen. Thanks to Ngodrup and our connections with Khenpo, Rinpoche, we were welcomed and treated like old friends, given the best of rooms, and fed often and well. Gyaltsap Rinpoche—s personal attendant even ate with us and showed us around the monastery complex. Aside from the main shrine hall, where we were able to practice, we saw the special shrine where His Eminence does the red-crown ceremony plus the exquisite apartment they have built for His Holiness, the 17th Karmapa, whenever he may happen to visit.

What a great spirit was here, everything new and the energy level high. The gompa and additional shrines were all very fine and we even got a chance to see the new dharmapala shrine, which was not yet completed. For this, they had brought in a master sculptor, who had lived there for some extended period of time, to create the most beautiful Mahakala statue I have ever seen. About 6-7 feet tall, it was hand fashioned from clay and had yet to be painted. As you can see from the pictures, it is exquisite and complete to the last detail. This was one of about ten different statues that this craftsman had sculpted. I have never seen anything better. They were remarkable.

That first afternoon, we had a brief interview with Gyaltsap, Rinpoche, during which I requested from him a Vajrapani empowerment, one of my main practices. I had written to Rinpoche over the years, inviting him to visit our center and had always dreamed of receiving this empowerment from His Eminence himself, since he is the emanation of Vajrapani in our lineage. And, even though his schedule was very tight, he agreed to give it that next morning. In his private quarter, my family and I received the Vajrapani empowerment from Gyaltsap, Rinpoche himself.

Here is a rinpoche that is more of a yogi than the average lama in our lineage, spending most of his time in practice and semi-retreat. Because of the various problems within the lineage, he has been the main one to watch over Rumtek monastery, all of these years. Not given to small talk or to superficial gestures (he is not much on smiles), Gyaltsap Rinpoche just stares at you straight on. There he is. Not much given to cosmetic smiles myself, I felt in his presence as if I had come home, safe under the wings of a mother hen. I really identified with Gyaltsap, Rinpoche.

Our short stay at Ralung was, for some reason, very full of meaningful events, both large and small, sequenced back to back. Moreover, the food was great or we were tasting great. The giant beetles and moths and the closeness of the rain forest lent an almost unworldly (at least for us Midwesterners) feel to the visit. The place was charged and we were up to it. The memory, even today, remains clear and present — a special time.

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