Venerable 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 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 the Karma 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”


His Holiness the XVIth Gyalwa Karmapa, Rangjung Rigpe Dorje, was the spiritual leader of the Karma Kagyu lineage of Vajrayana Buddhism. He was born on August 14, 1924 in Denkhok in the Dergé district of Kham (Eastern Tibet), near the Yangtze River. His discovery was based on a prediction letter that had been entrusted by his predecessor to Jampal Tsultrim, the personal attendant of the XVth Karmapa. Once found, Rangjung was taken to Palpung Monastery for training and novice ordination.

In 1931, at the age of seven, the new Karmapa performed his first Vajra Crown ceremony. Thousands were witness to this event and it was said that a rain of flowers fell and the sky was filled with rainbows. At age thirteen he journeyed to Tsurphu Monastery, traditional seat of the Karmapas, where he received full ordination—the “hair-cutting ceremony”—from Thubten Gyatso, the XIIIth Dalai Lama.

During his subsequent education in Tsurphu the Karmapa received all the Kagyu transmissions, as well as being given extensive training in the Sakya lineage teachings by HH Sakya Trizin. He spent much of the time between 1941 and 1944 in retreat, after which he began working to strengthen relationships with neighboring Buddhist states in the Himalayan region, as well as with India. During a pilgrimage in southern Tibet, he accepted an invitation to visit the kingdom of Bhutan from His Highness Jigme Dorje Wangchuk and in 1947 he accompanied Tenzin Gyatso, the XIVth Dalai Lama, on a pilgrimage to India.

His Holiness’ education continued with Mindrolling Trichen of the Nyingma School and was concluded by his receiving the Kalachakra initiation of the Gelugpas, a transmission that marked his having been given all the most important teachings of the major Vajrayana Buddhist schools. The Karmapa continued his predecessor’s activities, travelling and teaching throughout Tibet, Bhutan, Nepal, Sikkim, India and parts of China. He also assumed responsibility for locating many reborn tulkus.

Political circumstances altered Tibet radically with the 1950 takeover by the Chinese. The Karmapa, along with HH the Dalai Lama and other high lamas and Tibetan government officials, attended talks in Beijing in 1954 to attempt to negotiate a settlement. After some initial progress the talks broke down when, in 1959, the Chinese government insisted on land reform measures that would have dispossessed the monasteries. Foreseeing the communist Chinese invasion of Tibet and the inevitable destruction of Buddhist institutions, His Holiness informed the Dalai Lama of his intention to leave Tibet in early 1959. In February of that year the Karmapa, accompanied by an entourage of 160 attendants and students, fled Tsurphu Monastery and proceeded overland to Bhutan, taking the lineage’s most sacred treasures and relics with him.

After a journey of three weeks, the party were met in northern Bhutan by senior Bhutanese government officials. Shortly thereafter Tashi Namgyal, the Chogyal (king) of Sikkim, offered land to His Holiness near a site where the XIVth Karmapa had established a monastery. The property was accepted and it was there that Rumtek Monastery, the Karmapa’s new seat, was built in 1966.

At that time, as part of an initiative by the Tibetan government-in-exile to consolidate the organizations of Tibetan Buddhism, Rangjung Rigpe Dorje became the first formal head of the entire Kagyu School, although the earlier Karmapas had long been considered its most prestigious and authoritative lamas.

After meeting Ven Ananda Bodhi—later Namgyal Rinpoche—first in 1968 and for a second time in 1970, His Holiness made the prediction that the future of Vajrayana Buddhism lay in the West. Soon afterwards he sent his representative, Lama Gendün, to Europe to begin establishing Kagyu centres there, and in 1974 he embarked on his first world tour, travelling to Europe, Canada and the United States, giving several Vajra Crown ceremonies, and many Dharma teachings. In mid-January 1975, he flew to Rome and met with His Holiness Pope Paul VI, and in 1976 he embarked on an even more extensive tour, giving teachings and empowerments and visiting nearly every major city in Europe. Finally, in 1980 he began his last world tour, giving teachings, interviews and empowerments in South East Asia, Greece, England and the US. On November 5, 1981 His Holiness the XVIth Gyalwa Karmapa, Rangjung Rigpe Dorje, passed away in a hospital in Zion, Illinois, near Chicago.

Doctors and nurses at the hospital remarked on his kindness and how he seemed more concerned with their welfare than his own. One doctor was also struck by the his refusal of pain medication, and the absence of any outward signs of the intense pain that most patients in his condition report. Upon his death, against hospital procedure but in keeping with Tibetan tradition and with special permission from the State of Illinois, the Karmapa’s body was left in the hospital for three days and his heart remained warm during this time. The hospital’s Chief of Staff Radulfo Sanchez had no medical explanation for this.

Many seemingly ‘miraculous’ phenomena were reported to have been observed in association with the Karmapa’s passing. During the seven weeks between his death and cremation, his body is said to have spontaneously and quite noticeably shrunk. His two dogs both died on the day of his cremation in Rumtek, even though they appeared perfectly healthy. During the cremation a triple circular rainbow appeared above the monastery in a clear blue sky, and many photographs were taken of this remarkable occurrence.

The XVIth Karmapa was a living example of the great heart of awakening, and he helped immeasurably to foster the transmission of Vajrayana Buddhism to the West. He established Dharma centres and monasteries in many places around the world that continue to protect, preserve, and promulgate the Buddha’s teachings.


Venerable Sayadaw U Thila Wunta was born June 28, 1912 in Wekalaung, Mon State, Burma to the Ngyein family. His parents named him Botaya—“one who loves the dhamma.” He began his training at the Wekalaung village monastery school in 1919 and at the age of 15 he took the vows of a samanera or novice monk, and was given the name Thila Wunta—“Great Sila.” In May 1932 he received full ordination as a bhikkhu under the preceptorship of Kyaw Sayadaw and spent his first three-month retreat at Htan-bin Monastery near Wekalaung. Between the years 1933 and 1938 he practiced in Mandalay under the supervision of Sayadaw U Narada of Payagyi Monastery, Sayadaw U Ariya of Ahlei Taik Monastery, and Sayadaw U Pyin Nyein Da of Aung Mye Bonzan Monastery—all renowned scholars and meditators. Venerable U Thila Wunta then dwelt for three years near the Shwe Dagon Pagoda in Rangoon, one of the great holy sites that the Burmese believe are especially conducive to meditation practice. During this period he constructed his first pagoda (stupa)—the Su-taung-pye Kat-Kyaw Pagoda—on the She Dagon’s second level.

In 1941, ahead of the advancing Japanese invaders, Sayadaw left Rangoon for his native Mon State, where he remained in retreat at Phaouk Monastery in Moulmein until after the end of hostilities. In early 1946 he returned to Rangoon, where he took up residence in a bamboo hut—again not far from the great Shwe Dagon Pagoda. In May of 1947 he was given another small meditation hut by some devout lay people living in Kapili Kwathi on the west side of the Shwe Dagon, and there he spent the rainy season practicing meditation with eight fellow monks. At the end of 1947 he set out for Mandalay to pursue further meditation practice at Mahatmya-muni Pagoda. There he met and discussed meditation with a disciple of Bodaw Aung Min Gaung, one of the most venerated practitioners of the Weizzar forest tradition (from the Pali vijja: wise ones. The weizzars of Burma are considered to be accomplished masters similar to tantric yogis and siddhas). During their conversations the Sayadaw learned that this student had travelled the distance between Popa and Mandalay—normally a two-day journey—in just three hours.

Inspired by what he had heard about Bodaw Aung Min Gaung, Sayadaw traveled to Popa to meet the great master in person. This meeting brought about a radical change in his understanding. He began an intensive retreat, asking the Bodaw to explain the nimittas (signs) that had arisen in his meditation. At this time the Bodaw promised to henceforth help in all the works of the Sayadaw, strengthening the Buddha Sasana in Burma and abroad.

Upon Sayadaw’s eventual return to Rangoon, a devout layman named U Pho Nweh requested that he accept five acres of land and restore an ancient, ruined pagoda on the site. At the conclusion of a meditation retreat, during which he considered the request, Sayadaw journeyed to Popa to ask the advice of Bodaw Aung Min Gaung. On the Bodaw’s recommendation, he accepted the land and began construction of the Dat Pon Zon Aung Min Gaung Pagoda on January 13, 1949. That was the start of a project that has continued up to the present. Today, surrounding the reconstructed central pagoda, there are some 174 smaller pagodas, along with a number of buildings for monks and lay meditators. The original five bare acres has been transformed into a thriving monastic complex, known as Dat Pon Zon Aung Min Gaung Monastery.

For five years, from the time of his initial residence on the property in early 1948 until the construction of the first monastery buildings in 1953, Sayadaw dwelt under a large tree, refusing any permanent lodging. When local devotees brought him offerings they would often find him seated in motionless meditation, the ants having incorporated his body into their network of paths. To this day he is known to many Burmese as the “Ant Sayadaw.”

In 1952 Sayadaw went on pilgrimage to Bodhgaya and other Buddhist sites in India. At Mihintali he meditated where Prince Mahendra (Mahinda), the son of Emperor Asoka, is said to have attained enlightenment. He also went to Savatti, to Rajgriha—the Vulture’s Peak—site of many of the Buddha’s discourses, to Sarnath—where the Buddha gave his first teaching, and to Kusinara, where the Buddha entered into parinibbana. In Sri Lanka he visited the great monastery of Anuradhapura.

In 1955 Sayadaw began a period of wide-ranging travel and pagoda construction. He visited Thailand, Cambodia, Nepal and—once again—India, where he completed an intensive forty-nine-day meditation retreat at Bodhgaya. In 1958 he travelled by ship to England and then to the United States, where he built the American Shwe Dagon Pagoda on land donated by Mr. Gus Ruggieri near Allegany, New York.

While in London, Sayadaw met the young Canadian Leslie Dawson, who was interested in becoming a monk and had already studied the Vinaya and other aspects of the Dhamma. Sayadaw advised Mr. Dawson to meet him in India and then to return with him to Burma, and on October 28, 1958, Leslie Dawson was ordained as a novice monk in Bodhgaya, taking the name Ananda Bodhi. He received full bhikkhu ordination at the Shwe Dagon Pagoda in Rangoon on December 21, and then 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 Samattha-Vipassana-Kammatthana-Acariya (master of both tranquility and insight meditation) in recognition of his attainments.

Between 1958 and 1981 Sayadaw built and restored numerous pagodas throughout Burma. He also gained a reputation as a great healer and his monastery became a centre for monks from his native Mon State wishing to do concentrated meditation practice in Rangoon. In 1981 and 1982 two American students of Ven Ananda Bodhi (by then known as Namgyal Rinpoche) came to Sayadaw to request ordination as U Paññananda and U Bodhi Nanda (aka Karma Sonam Senge). Subsequently they initiated and helped to support Ven Sayadaw U Thila Wunta’s second visit to the West.

In April 1982 Sayadaw left for North America, where he constructed pagodas and taught at centres near Boise and Kinmount and on Galiano Island. Additionally, he rebuilt the American Shwe Dagon Pagoda in New York and gave teachings in San Francisco, Los Angeles, Nelson, Edmonton and Calgary. In November, at the invitation of students of Namgyal Rinpoche, Sayadaw continued on to New Zealand, where he taught in Aukland, Wellington and Christchurch before travelling to the Wangapeka Retreat Centre to construct another pagoda. From New Zealand Sayadaw flew to Australia, where he supervised the building of a pagoda in Adelaide and visited the Origins Centre near Perth.

Between 1988 and 2000 Sayadaw made three more extensive journeys outside Burma. Students of Namgyal Rinpoche helped to organize a visit to England, where Sayadaw constructed a pagoda in Warwick in 1988. In 1990 he travelled to California and British Columbia, teaching in Los Angeles and Vancouver and building a spacious platform around the World Peace Pagoda on Galiano Island. In 2000 Sayadaw journeyed again to North America, constructing a pagoda in Winnipeg and a large Buddharupa at the Dharma Centre in Kinmount. Then he went on to build a pagoda in Barrydale, South Africa before returning to Burma. Though health problems prevented his direct participation, in 2006 students of the Ven Sayadaw constructed a pagoda in Sao Paulo, Brazil, fulfilling his wish that pagodas be built on all six continents.

The Ven Sayadaw, truly a living embodiment of the power of the Teaching, spoke of himself as a fisherman casting the golden net of Buddha Dhamma in many far-off seas. He passed away in Rangoon on March 18, 2011.