After Genyenma Ahkon Lhamo passed away, her body was cremated in a grand public prayer ceremony that is conducted for high lamas’ passage. At the height of the ceremony, her kapala, or top part of her skull, rose out the fire and flew toward the monastery, three kilometers away. Everyone saw this, and it caused great wonder. But the monks in the main temple were even more astonished when they saw the kapala fly in and come to rest at the foot of her brother’s throne. Upon inspection, it was discovered that the inside displayed miraculously produced images, including the sacred syllable “AH” at the very crown. This syllable represents realization of the ultimate truth of the empty nature of self and phenomena. The Ahkon Lhamo kapala became the most sacred relic at Palyul Monastery, only used in the most powerful rituals.
The communist chinese invaded Tibet in 1950, and HH Penor Rinpoche was forced to flee to India in 1959. In the need to travel lightly, he was not able to bring Ahkon Lhamo’s kapala. Later, during the chinese cultural revolution, the people of the Palyul area were forced to destroy Palyul Monastery. Tragically, most of the kapala was smashed into dust. One piece remained intact, however the crown piece bearing the syllable “Ah” . A Tibetan man on the scene understood what it was, and when no one was looking, quietly hid it away inside his clothing.
This man wore the relic in an amulet on his body for the next 20 years. In 1987, just after Penor Rinpoche had formally recognized an American woman named Alyce Zeoli as the tulku, or reincarnation, of Ahkon Lhamo, His Holiness was able to return to Palyul in Tibet. There, the man who had rescued the last piece of Ahkon Lhamo’s kapala relic approached him and related the whole story. Penor Rinpoche rejoiced and asked if the man would please give the relic to him. He said that Ahkon Lhamo’s incarnation had been reborn in America and the following year he intended to travel there to conduct the enthronement ceremony for her. He felt that this relic would be a most auspicious gift. Though the man was heartbroken to lose this treasure, of course he gave it to Penor Rinpoche.
The next year, 1988, Penor Rinpoche presented the kapala relic, which he had preserved in a crystal lotus, to Jetsunma Ahkon Lhamo, her new name upon the occasion of her enthronement. At that time he related to Jetsunma and her students that as a young tulku at Palyul Monastery, he had held the full kapala at major prayer events. He said that even as a child in Tibet he used to make aspirational prayers that if the reincarnation of Ahkon Lhamo were in the world, that he might be the one to find her. And so it happened.
The Ahkon Lhamo kapala relic has been enshrined on the Three Kaya altar at Kunzang Palyul Choling in Poolesville, MD. This holy object indicates the highest realization of complete mastery over phenomena.
The Buddhist world was surprised to learn in 1987 that an American woman named Alyce Zeoli (born in Brooklyn in 1949) had been formally recognized as a tulku, or intentional reincarnation. She was given the name “Ahkon Norbu Lhamo,”Jetsunma had neither grown up in a Buddhist culture nor received any Buddhist education. She recalls a spiritual yearning for as long as she can remember, but found no fulfilling religious institutions, or movements, or teachers. She prayed often for a way to fulfill the spiritual potential she felt. Then, when she was 19 and a young bride on a farm outside Asheville, North Carolina, answers began to come, in the form of a series of dreams that offered her very precise instructions on how to meditate.
Penor Rinpoche made his first visit to North America. Seeing Penor Rinpoche for the first time, Jetsunma has said, was overwhelming, “like meeting your own heart and mind.” Penor Rinpoche stayed at Jetsunma’s home for a week. During that time, he interviewed her and many of her students about what was being taught and practiced. At the end of the visit, he said that from his point of view her teachings were the complete wisdom and compassion teachings of Mahayana Buddhism, the foundation for Vajrayana practice. He said further that for such teachings to have arisen spontaneously in Jetsunma’s mind indicated that she must have accomplished these teachings very well in many previous lifetimes and made strong and pure aspirations. He gave the students Refuge and Bodhisattva Vows, the precepts that represent formal entry into the Buddhist path, and continued on his tour.
Soon after, Jetsunma sought out the lama who had invited Penor Rinpoche to America. She visited this lama, the Venerable Gyatrul Rinpoche, at his temple in Ashland, Oregon. Again, the connection was powerful and immediate. Later, she would discover that Gyatrul Rinpoche was the brother of the 17th century Ahkon Lhamo. Jetsunma considers His Holiness Penor Rinpoche and Ven. Gyatrul Rinpoche to be her two root lamas.
Meanwhile, having met Alyce Zeoli, His Holiness quietly conferred with other high lamas for two years, including the previous Supreme Head of the Nyingmapa, His Holiness Dilgo Khyentse Rinpoche, and Dzongnang Rinpoche. They agreed that Alyce Zeoli was indeed the reincarnation of Genyenma Ahkon Lhamo, the sister of Rigdzin Kunzang Sherab, the First Throneholder of the Palyul lineage. (The title “Genyenma” indicates an accomplished female practitioner who is not ordained as a nun.) The first Ahkon Lhamo spent most of her life in meditation in a cave far above the monastery and was regarded as a female emanation of enlightened mind. Upon her death, she left a miraculous relic that became one of the most cherished at Palyul.
In 1988, Penor Rinpoche travelled to Jetsunma’s center in Poolesville, Maryland, to confer for the first time in the West the entire transmission of the Rinchen Terdzod, the vast collection of the revealed teachings of Guru Padmasambhava, a process that took four months. Toward the end, he performed the traditional enthronement ceremony of Jetsunma as a Palyul tulku.
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