Lama Zopa Rinpoche stopped breathing on Thursday, April 14, 2023, and entered what is called “thukdam,” a subtle state that high lamas and other highly realized people have sometimes been observed to experience, where their vital signs have stopped, yet they their body doesn’t decay and remains supple for several days after. In our Buddhist tradition we call this state “clear light meditation.”
Rinpoche was the spiritual director of the FPMT (Foundation for the Preservation of the Mahayana Tradition), the Buddhist organization of 150+ centers where I learned Buddhist philosophy and meditation. Rinpoche was the heart disciple of Lama Yeshe, with whom he co-founded Kopan Monastery and other Buddhist organizations and centers including Vajrapani Institute, the retreat center in Boulder Creek where I’ve done most of my meditation retreats. Both teachers had an extraordinary gift for adapting esoteric Tibetan Buddhist teachings to western students.
Over the last two decades, I had the privilege of attending numerous teachings and rituals with Rinpoche, and met him up-close a few times. Of all the lamas I have encountered, he is the one who seemed most other-worldly, seeming to experience a different (and far more beautiful) reality than the one most of us saw. He emanated love, compassion, and gentleness, and produced a tireless stream of powerful teachings, rare translations, sage books, and practical instructions for his students.
From the people I know who worked closely with Rinpoche, he appeared to rarely sleep, dedicating all his time to benefitting beings in myriad ways including heroic, poetic acts like chartering a boat to pull a polycarbonate sheet inscribed with mantras to bless the creatures of the ocean off the California coast, or planning the construction of the tallest Buddha statue on Earth.
These three pictures of Rinpoche are my favorites, which have followed me from home-to-home to rest on various altars over the years, beautiful portraits that remind one of the famous Japanese “hear no evil, see no evil, speak no evil” sculptures.
I was on a short solitary retreat at Vajrapani Institute this week, only steps away from Lama Yeshe’s cremation stupa, when I was told of Rinpoche’s passing Thursday. My immediate reaction was one of awe and gratitude, overwhelmed by the vast positive impact of Rinpoche’s life, and his living inspiration in my daily meditation practice and that of so many others. Thank you for making the world a better place, our lives more meaningful, and our practice more fruitful, Kyabje Zopa Rinpoche!
Color photos by Ven. Roger Kusang, black and white photos by my brother, Kris Snibbe, taken at Kurukulla Center