Ven Namgyal Rinpoche

Karma Tensing Dorje Namgyal Rinpoche was born Leslie George Dawson in Toronto, Canada, on October 11, 1931 to middle-class parents. His mother was a nurse and his father was a policeman and Freemason. He attended Norway Public School and Malvern Collegiate, where he studied music appreciation with Glenn Gould as a classmate and worked summers at the Connaught Medical Research Laboratories. After graduating from high school he spent a few months at Jarvis Baptist Seminary and then went on to major in Philosophy and Psychology at the University of Michigan, Ann Arbour. For a time he became involved as a left-wing political activist, ultimately travelling to Soviet Russia where he addressed an international youth conference in Moscow. His experiences there resulted in a fundamental disillusionment with politics, and in 1956 he moved to England, where straightened circumstances shortly resulted in his contracting tuberculosis. In London he became interested in Theosophy and afterward in Theravada Buddhist practice. Eventually he decided to ‘go forth’ into the life of a homeless monastic.

At the Buddhist Vihara in London in April, 1958, he met the Burmese Sayadaw U Thila Wunta and requested ordination. The Venerable Sayadaw suggested that they meet at Bodhgaya in India, where, on October 28, Leslie Dawson was ordained as a novice monk, taking the name Ananda. From there they returned to Burma where he received full ordination as Bhikkhu Ananda Bodhi at the Shwe Dagon Pagoda in Rangoon on December 21, 1958. He began an extended period of intensive meditation practice, during which he studied for periods in Sri Lanka and at Wat Paknam and Wat Mahadat (with Chao Khun Phra Rajasiddhimuni) in Thailand, as well as with Sayadaw U Thila Wunta and Venerable Mahasi Sayadaw in Rangoon. He was ultimately given the title Samatha-Vipassana-Kammatthana-Acariya (master of both tranquility and insight meditation) in recognition of his attainments.

Venerable Ananda Bodhi returned to England in the Fall of 1961, at the invitation of the English Sangha Trust, becoming the Resident Teacher of the Camden Town Vihara. He was a special guest speaker at the Fifth International Congress of Psychotherapists in London, where he met Julian Huxley, Anna Freud and R.D.Laing, among others. For the next three years he taught extensively throughout the UK, founding the Hampstead Buddhist Vihara in London and the Johnstone House Contemplative Community—a retreat centre in southern Scotland. During this period he also joined a Masonic lodge. In 1965, when he decided to move to Toronto with two of his British students, Johnstone House was entrusted to Venerable Chogyam Trungpa Rinpoche and Akong Tulku, becoming Kagyu Samye Ling—the first Vajrayana centre to be established in the West.

The following year Ananda Bodhi and his students founded The Dharma Centre of Canada and purchased a 400-acre forest property near Kinmount, Ontario for a retreat centre. In 1967 he founded the Centennial Lodge of the Theosophical Society. After a couple of years spent teaching mostly in Toronto and at the Dharma Centre, The Bhikkhu (as he had become known) initiated an extended period of nearly continuous travel, taking students all over the world. It was on one of these trips, in Sikkim in 1968, that he met and was subsequently recognized by His Holiness the XVIth Gyalwa Karmapa (head of theKarma Kagyu school of Tibetan Vajrayana Buddhism) as an incarnation of the Namgyal Tulku—the first Westerner to be so acknowledged. His formal enthronement as Karma Tensing Dorje Namgyal Rinpoche was performed by Venerable Karma Thinley Rinpoche in the spring of 1972.

Over the next few years Rinpoche received teachings and empowerments from many accomplished lamas—including HH Sakya Trizin, HH Dudjom Rinpoche, HE Chogye Trichen Rinpoche, Venerable Kalu Rinpoche, and Venerable Ling Rinpoche, as well as HH the XVIth Karmapa—and he was instrumental in arranging the latter’s first North American visit in 1974. He continued to teach and travel widely throughout the world, and for a number of years in the 70s and 80s he took numerous small groups of students on months-long voyages on passenger freighters. Later, he introduced many to the joys of dive charters, polar expeditions and excursions up the Amazon, as well as to gourmet cooking, Teilhard de Chardin and Krishnamurti, Mahler’s music and Rilke’s poetry, the painting of Mondrian…and so much more.

In his journeys Rinpoche frequently visited the many centres established by his students in Canada, the United States, Guatemala, England, Ireland, France, Germany, Switzerland, Japan, New Zealand and Australia. His love of travel and more than forty years of teaching inevitably took a toll on his physical condition, and some long-standing health problems finally caught up with him on October 22, 2003 when he passed away at a small private cottage on the Bodensee Lake in Switzerland.

Namgyal Rinpoche devoted his entire life to the welfare of beings, and his dedication to their liberation, his unbounded interest in this planet and all its flora and fauna, was as tireless as it was vast. A master of Mahamudra, he was unique in his ability to encompass and bridge traditional Buddhist forms and western practices, transmitting the path of awakening in universal terms according to beings’ interests and proclivities. His fearless and compassionate example continues to inspire and transform his many students, and their students, all over the world.

In the words of Tarchin Hearn, “Rinpoché was many things to many beings. He was an upholder of tradition and, simultaneously, an innovator and integrator of new unfolding pathways…It has been wondrous to have lived so many years knowing him, an extraordinary manifestation of Emptiness and vast compassionate activity. May the wholesomeness of the teachings that he has given freely to so many beings continue to grow and flourish for the sake of all those yet to come.” Sarva Mangalam