When Lam Pemala Got ‘Carsick’ In The USA

Nimalung Dratshang was established during the reign of the Second Druk Gyalpo Jigme Wangchuck. At the time of its establishment, little did the authorities involved know that a product of that very Dratshang would one day astound and inspire eminent personalities on the opposite side of the globe with his noble qualities and spiritual mettle. Lam Pemala, around whom this short but beautiful narrative is woven, was a monk at Nimalung Dratshang. His received his first teachings from Dorim Trilku, who was the Head Lam at the Dratshang. Besides the Dorim Trilku, Lam Pemala also received various teachings, initiations and empowerments from many other renowned teachers of the time in Tibet. After completing his studies, he served as the ‘Zhung Rigney Lopen’ (which roughly translates as the ‘Teacher of Grammer,’) at Semtokha Rigney Lobdra, which had just been established at what we know as the Semtokha Dzong today. And then for some time he was the ‘Dochen’ or Director of the Dratshang Library. It was during this time, in 1975 that he went to the US on a study tour to explore new ideas, ways and means to develop the library. His tour was not limited to America alone; he also travelled to many other countries including Mongolia, Beijing and France. But it was in America that he worked his magic, albeit unintentionally. During his visit to the US, Professor L. Lancaster, a Specialist from South-East Asia at UC Berkeley, was driving him around Berkeley.  Incidentally, Ugyen Tshering, the former Foreign Minister, also happened to be studying at the University of California. Call it sheer co-incidence, but he did happen to be there at that exact point in time, and it does make a compelling argument in favor of destiny.

As the Professor and Lam Pemala were driving in the outskirts of Berkeley, Lam Pemala suddenly asked Lancaster to stop the car. Having no common language with which to communicate, Professor Lancaster could only comply. Lam Pemala got out and sat down on the side of the road. The Professor presumed it to be a case of carsickness but Lam Pemala’s countenance betrayed not even the slightest indication of it. Instead, after a moment of silence, he muttered some prayers and proceeded to spend the next hour or so in deep meditation, all the while reciting a Buddhist sutra. Professor Lancaster had absolutely no idea what was going on, but a strange feeling of curiosity led him to maintain his silence and wait. Following the strange turn of events and the even stranger demeanor of the Lam, the Professor decided to turn around and head back to Berkeley. Later, through Ugyen Tshering, Lancaster asked Lam Pemala about what the mysterious antics were all about. Lam Pemala responded thus ‘as we drove past that point, a group of disembodied spirits appeared as if they had something to say.’ Though he had no idea who they were, he could not bear to just leave those helpless spirits and therefore recited the Buddhist sutra for as long as he could, to console those poor souls. This bizarre explanation made the Professor even more curious for answers so he immediately went to the library and read about the history of Berkeley. What he found out had him speechless. ‘Startled’ probably wouldn’t begin to describe even a fraction of the feelings that the Professor might have gone through. The place where Lam Pemala had got out of the car and meditated turned out to be the exact spot where a massacre of Native Americans had once taken place. It was at that moment that the Professor realized that some things are just not within the domain of logic or reason. A simple monk from a country hardly on the map astounded someone as knowledgeable and highly educated as the Professor in a country of the size and stature of the US.

To the Western/modern psyche, what Lam Pemala did that day must have come across as extraordinary and bewildering, but to a true Buddhist practitioner this is nothing new or out of the ordinary. It is just about levels. But of course, these are things way beyond the reach of an average Buddhist practitioner, much less someone who is only pretending to be practicing on the outside. Truth be told, there are holes in the holy. Someone who has donned the sacred robes isn’t necessarily a spiritual person. These are people who are deluded due to their pretensions at leading a purpose driven life. They belong to the lot who are working diligently towards their goal of not making any progress towards their goal and their attempts at enlightenment are sure to be nothing short of legendary failures. But unlike these ‘Masters’ who almost make us bleed from our eyes and ears with the materialistic garbage pouring out of their traps and the regular avalanche of pure bullshit, Lam Pemala was someone who was genuinely walking the path.

As per the Buddhist precepts, someone who has attained certain levels in ‘Gom Nyamlen,’ roughly translated as ‘transcendental meditation,’ develops the ability to not just see the ‘Mi Ma Yin’ (beings that are invisible to ordinary human eyes) but also to feel what they feel. Buddhist religious history abounds with numerous accounts of how during the time of the Buddha, his disciples toured the realms of the ‘Yidag’ or ‘Hungry Ghosts’ and brought them respite. Likewise, the late 16th Gyalwa Karmapa is known to have regularly given teachings to rabbits and birds and guided them towards enlightenment on numerous occasions. What Lam Pemala saw and did that fateful day is irrefutable evidence of his knowledge and the phenomenal levels that he had attained in ‘Gom Nyamlen’ or the journey within. In the Buddhist terminology, the beings that Lam Pemala saw and felt for that day are referred to as ‘Mi Ma Yin’ or ‘Namshey.’ By definition, ‘Mi Ma Yin’ and ‘Namshey’ are souls deprived of form, stuck in the ‘Bardo’ or the ‘Intermediate Realms’ and undergoing all manner of pain and torment until such a time when their sins are all cleansed and they get another shot at enlightenment. That day, Lam Pemala, upon witnessing the plight of those poor souls, could have either been giving them ‘Chhoeshay’ or teachings to help them realize how to make their way out of whatever realm they had been stuck in, or he could have been praying to the Primordial Gods on their behalf to ease their suffering. That is something that we will never know.

Returning from the tour, he was appointed as the Lam for Nimalung Dratshang, the very place where he first commenced his religious pursuits. He was very accomplished in ‘Zhung,’ and ‘Rigney,’ (which are basically different grammatical aspects) as well as ‘Thudam’ or transcendental meditation. It is to his credit that the ‘Jogyig’ of the Dzongkha script attained the levels that it has as of today. It was he who developed the style and popularized it from the confines of the Semtokha Dzong during his tenure as the ‘Zhung Rigney Lopen.’  He is sure to have had very few contemporaries, at least during his time. Even in its lowest swoop the majestic eagle easily glides over horizons which lesser birds cannot aspire to touch even in their highest soar. Lam Pemala and those of his ilk, are beings so damn used to getting the better of the seemingly impossible, a feat not many are fortunate enough to be capable of. The passionate ardor with which he went about his spiritual pursuit made him a more than deserving candidate of his capabilities. He truly defined focus and commitment. Grounded in humility and simplicity, his is the story of a true Buddhist practitioner in every sense of the term. He really led life to the least. His wants were minimal, and therefore he was always plentifully provided for. He was someone who would probably have been perpetually smiling at the foolishness of it all, our petty problems and our never ending pursuit of ‘a little bit more.’

Although they maintain a low profile during their lifetime, it is in death that people of his caliber prove their true worth. Modern western society has no real understanding of death or what happens in death or after death. In the west, people are taught to deny death; for them it means nothing more than annihilation and loss. Therefore they spend their entire lives either in denial or the terror of death, all the while pursuing their version of happiness. ‘Synthetic happiness’ is not quite of the same quality as ‘Natural Happiness.’ ‘Natural Happiness’ is what we get when we get what we wanted, and ‘Synthetic Happiness’ is what we make when we don’t get what we wanted. Not realizing the difference works to our supreme disadvantage. Either ways, consumerism is the biggest illusion of happiness that we have let ourselves be fooled into. Make no mistake about it, sooner or later people will eventually come to the realization that rampant consumerism is unsustainable and keeps perpetuating the endless cycle of greed for more, followed by the dissatisfaction that more is never enough. Without any real or authentic faith in an afterlife, most people are basically existing in a spiritual desert, deprived of any ultimate meaning. On the other hand, for beings like Lam Pemala, death is something to be celebrated and welcomed. For them, life is a joke and death the ultimate punch-line.

If heaven is indeed somewhere in the skies, those of us in Bhutan are the closest to it, at least in geographical terms. And it is probably to do with our good fortune of living in the same environs and getting to share the same breathing space as Lam Pemala. For all we know, the vast reservoir of knowledge that Lam Pemala gained mastery over, probably holds the key to the entire meaning of life, and perhaps to our very survival. Amidst the rampant ‘Westoxification,’ that has come to define development and modernity, beings like Lam Pemala continue to rekindle the hope that we will be able to navigate the coming years without losing the Buddhist values that make us so special. When one considers the fact that we are all really nothing more than just various chunks of carbon-based meat attached to calcium based sticks, we are all prisoners to the uncertainty, doubt and inexorable agony of existence insofar as these emotional states are universal constants of the human condition. It is all to do with coming to terms with the understanding that we are all part of something much bigger than ourselves. The questions are infinite. And Lam Pemala was someone who probably had all the answers.

Lam Pemala is no longer amongst us. The Teacher may have passed on. But the Teachings remain. Whatever questions Lam Pemala left us with, Dr. Karma probably has most, if not all of the answers. If you are curious as to the ‘why,’ you might wanna check out the video below:

This write-up is based on the information (oral/verbal testimonials) from people who had known Lam Pemala. However, if you have any additional information or feel the need to correct anything with regard to the content, we welcome any feedback, comment or opinion on the piece. In doing so, you will be helping us give due credit and do justice to the memories of this very remarkable human being.