Rethinking Service & The Rachen World Peace Stupa

May 11, 2024

I can admit when I was wrong. When it comes to my thinking about the Rachen Stupa Service project, I was so, so mistaken. Let me tell you why…

We’ve just come down from Lama Konchog’s mountain hermitage where he completed over twenty years of solitary retreat. For those unfamiliar with Konchog, he is the deceased master of our present teacher Geshe Tenzin Zopa, featured in the documentary Unmistaken Child, which chronicles Zopa’s search for the reincarnation of his beloved teacher. Geshe-la invited a small group of benefactors to participate in the preparation ceremony for the now-being-constructed World Peace Stupa at Rachen Nunnery in the Tsum Valley, his birthplace. We have been on a pilgrimage through the valley these past few days, visiting holy places, purifying karma, collecting merits, and dedicating them towards the completion of the Stupa that should stand for over a thousand years broadcasting its signal of wisdom and compassion for humanity.

Today’s visit to the mountain retreat inspired a sense of awe that deepened our devotion. That Konchog spent two decades in complete solitude here, facing his mind, not to mention unimaginable weather conditions, all in the name of Bodhichitta, the altruistic resolve to seek enlightenment for the benefit of others, is nothing short of unfathomable. It’s hard to believe that people like you and me, strangers to him, were the very basis of Konchog’s determined compassion practice all those years. He did it for us because he cared immensely about our collective plight in samsara. Even while free and fully liberated, he remained in earnest compassion practice life-long. Those who criticize the Buddhist yogis who spend so much time in isolation as somehow selfish or aloof from the world, don’t quite appreciate the profound motivation underlying their practice and don’t understand the science of how karma works. As lofty as it might seem, these lamas seek to become the very condition, like soil and sun, for the karmic seeds planted by devotees to ripen, and in that way, Konchog is as close to embodying Christ's consciousness as perhaps a human being can emulate. 

Lama Konchog was one of the last true mountain yogis of this century and a mahasiddha, a saint-psychonaut, reportedly capable of advanced yogic self-control such as chulen, or yogic diet, converting nettles and even just the wind into subtle energy to nourish and sustain the body during harsh winters. Or yogic "swift feet", the uncanny ability to rapidly traverse on foot vast and treacherous landscapes in a fraction of the time it takes ordinary folks. There are also reports of Konchog's miracles, spontaneous healings of villagers, prophetic visions of the future, achieving the tantric rainbow body, and manifesting relics after cremation. As Konchog is the root lama of our lineage one can become more familiar with this modern-day Milarepa in this brilliant exposé, but it was his boundless compassion that overshadowed even his purported magical prowess.


When we arrived back down to the village below, we visited Geshe-la’s family home where he was born, which also happens to be the home of Konchog’s reincarnation, now Phuntsok Rinpoche, as well as the reincarnation of Kopan Monastery’s beloved abbot Lama Lhundrup, now the young Tenzin Rigsel Rinpoche. Tenzin Zopa’s extended family has produced a veritable dynasty of tulkus and lamas. Most of his siblings are monks and nuns, and many have achieved the highest monastic degree, the geshe or geshe-ma requiring 20 years of rigorous studies. Even Geshe-la's two lay, elderly aunties who have joined us for pilgrimage along with his mother, are magnificent while humble practitioners, one has recited without interruption the prajnaparamita, verses on emptiness, for over forty years, while the other is devoted to the tantric deity Vajrayogini, having also spent thirteen years in Lama Konchog’s cave after he passed away. All are dedicated to keeping the proverbial flame of universal compassion alive. We had tea in the family’s shrine room where many great masters converged over the years for sacred transmission, Lama Zopa, Drukpa RInpoche, and Lama Konchog, all having forged a special connection with and responsibility for the Tsum Valley which quietly lies in the borderlands between Tibet and Nepal, considered a beyul or hidden realm filled with dharma treasures left by the eighth century so-called second Buddha Padmasambhava. Our time here is very limited, and we are compacting many visits to power places into a short schedule.

In the morning, we head back to Rachen in earnest, but before we embark Geshe-la is ambushed by villagers who come to pay respect to their Dharma king. It is customary for devotees here to wait patiently at crossroads and significant weigh stations along the main route connecting the villages, not knowing exactly when or if their lama will arrive, they wait in hopeful anticipation, sometimes for hours, singing traditional songs, hands folded with gifts of white silk scarfs and thermoses of hot homemade butter tea. On this occasion, Geshe-la and two villagers have a very brief exchange that I am privileged to observe, he later grants me the translation on our walk back home. It’s enough to break me wide open and expose the folly of my thinking.


After the villagers joyfully make offerings to their lama, each with radiant child-like smiles, Geshe-la turned to each of them and said with ferocity, “You have two years, go and make offerings at the new stupa at Rachen Nunnery before it is complete. Even if it is collecting just one handful of sand to lay in its foundation, do not delay, and do not miss this opportunity of a lifetime.”  This is what the wrathful compassion of a mother lion looks like. Zopa was fierce and direct, his words had a pronounced urgency that cut through any glossy-eyed idealization the villagers may have been lulled by. With that our group went on its way, meanwhile, the villagers I’m quite sure understood clearly the opportunity for blessings at hand, even if it meant disrupting their workflow, impacting their income, or causing some worldly inconvenience, the Tsum-ba people of this region have been raised on karmic cosmology, have pure dharma hearts, unmatched devotion, and understand there is nothing more important than following the guidance of their master, and making offerings towards supreme Dharma relics. They would rather go hungry before missing such a chance.


Now, you might be wondering where I went so wrong. Before coming up to the Tsum Valley, I had just completed my twelve-week course The Crucible. Between that and my pilgrimage to Japan with Geshe-la this October, I had several months earmarked to develop a service project initiative so that we could help raise funds for the World Peace Stupa at Rachen. I thought my coming here would help clarify a path of action, and in a way it has, but not without first dispelling my naive misconceptions.

We in the West are well acquainted with fundraising for a noble cause. We call it charity. We find some person, project, or community in need, generate a narrative of goodwill, appeal to people’s compassion, or even sympathy, and try to elicit donations. We try to “help” the other, and we feel good about that. I’m not judging this process, it’s something I have been proud to be a part of during several past campaigns with my students and friends to support the nuns of Kopan Nunnery in Kathmandu in 2018, the Dorje Zong Nunnery in Zanskar, India between 2018-2020 and the Rachen Nunnery in the Tsum Valley between 2020-2022, when we offered funds for an apple orchard, washrooms for the elderly, and a water tank to be shared with the nunnery and local villagers. We did do something worthwhile, meaningful, and beneficial together. I stand by it.


My witnessing Geshe-la’s very poignant interaction and directive with these two villagers has changed my thinking. I now see that Rachen Nunnery and the Stupa project don’t need our charity, it’s us who need to be transformed by service. Supporting the stupa project is less about us doing something good for Rachen, although this will naturally occur, it’s more about us seizing an opportunity of a lifetime to purify our perceptions and accumulate the immense merit needed for breakthrough realizations. As I discuss in my first book Gradual Awakening, accumulating merit is not a selfish endeavor, it's a wise and necessary approach known in the lam rim as extracting the essence of the precious human life, doing everything we possibly can to purify karma, embody virtue, and awaken our minds for the benefit of others, rather than squandering our time following hedonic urges and fleeting pleasures. This may seem like a slight shift in emphasis, but when it comes to engaging in service it’s a 180-degree flip in orientation.

We’re not the wealthy do-gooders, and the Rachen nuns the impoverished recipients; that was my hubris and mistaken view. A single Rachen nun has more joy in their left pinky than all of us combined. The reverse scenario is more true, we’re the spiritually impoverished ones, so many of us struggle with depression, anxiety, and trauma, are bereft of community, stricken by a scarcity mentality, and lost without direction, while the Rachen nuns are the spiritually wealthy ones. Thus, while we are financially more fortunate and able to make offerings to the Rachen community, the Stupa Project offers us something far more priceless, the profound opportunity to be involved in meaningful service with far-reaching impact that transcends even our lifetime. We are the ones that need the help and stand to gain the most, is my point. We're not the benefactors, but the beneficiaries. Think about it for a second, how often do we get a chance to participate in an endeavor that fosters profound wisdom and universal compassion for ourselves while simultaneously broadcasting a positive signal to future generations for the next thousand years?



I won’t go into detail now about how the stupa works to accumulate merit, but I can say that beyond being a powerful symbol of the Dharmakaya, the compassionate omniscience of the Buddha's awakened mind, the stupa is also technically a reliquary. Geshe'a's genius has prompted him to use the latest nanotechnology to fill the World Peace Stupa with not millions, but billions, perhaps even trillions, of digital mantras along with other rare, sacred relics safeguarded by the wisdom keepers of Rachen Nunnery and Mu Monastery. Lama Zopa Rinpoche’s dying wish when he visited Rachen a year ago on what would be his last trip in this lifetime, was that a magnificent stupa should erected inside Rachen's courtyard of all places, towering over seventy feet high, facing Tibet, and told Geshe-la in a private conversation the night before he passed that, “even just touching the ground at Rachen delivers realization.” Remember, the Tsum Valley is considered a beyul, or a hidden land ladened with Padmasambhava’s blessings. The World Peace Stupa, Rachen Nunnery, and the Tsum Valley freely overflow with dharma nectar for those with open hearts and minds. Our mission, should we feel called, is to support Geshe-la and the Rachen nuns to preserve this sacred land and the spiritual legacy of its masters, treating it just like the fabled Shangri-La, protecting it from the forces of greed and exploitation that currently corrupts the world, while amplifying its positive message of hope. I now liken the Tsum Valley to the Dharma equivalent of the Amazon jungle or Great Barrier Reef, a rare and magnificent sanctuary the world can ill afford to have pillaged, overrun, or destroyed. Nearby Everest basecamp, the Annapurna circuit, and other famous natural attractions in Nepal have been laid waste by the onslaught of tourism, I pray with all my heart that Tsum doesn't suffer the same fate. As the road connecting Kathmandu with villages on the way to Tsum develops, just as a magnificent stupa is being erected, I ask myself how will the valley be safeguarded? 

My perception of service is not the only thing transformed by pilgrimage. The Rachen nuns are not ordinary monastics, they are humble, hidden yogis, vajra dakinis, each committed to a lifelong practice of universal compassion. As we observed their infectious joy comes through serving others. The Tsum Valley is no ordinary place, it is a beyul, a secret realm of natural purity and Dharma treasures that for now keeps itself hidden in remote isolation from the modern forces of consumerism and industrialization. No stores, restaurants, cafes, barely a cell signal, you're lucky to shower with a bucket of hot water. It can be hard going on the body living up there, but that's all a small price devotees pay to experience unspoiled beauty and authentic magic. Even Geshe-la admitted, "Up here my mind is in bliss, but my body is mashed potatoes!" The World Peace Stupa is likewise no ordinary structure, it will have the distinction of being a repository filled with an inconceivable bounty of relics and mantras, perhaps the most ever assembled using the latest technology, while being erected in arguably one of the most remote parts of the world. It is a beacon or antenna tower that will broadcast a vital signal of hope for generations to come exactly at the point in our civilization's rebirth when the night is darkest. All of which to say from a karmic perspective, given all these conditions, any virtuous activities done in relation to the stupa, be it a single prayer, a small offering, a group ritual, or receiving a teaching there, or just seeing an image of the World Peace Stupa and generating a strong aspiration of Bodhichitta, will accumulate incalculable merits, benefiting oneself and others, now and in future lives. 


When Geshe-la told the villagers with urgency, that time is precious and fleeting, drop whatever they are doing, and make an effort, even depositing one handful of sand into the Stupa's foundations, they immediately understood the value of his impassioned call to action. They got the message loud and clear. It was a gesture of Zopa's compassion to benefit the mind streams of the villagers, not a ploy to benefit Rachen. Of course, the Stupa and nuns will ultimately benefit, but first and foremost is appreciating how living in service is a form of cultural self-compassion, a medicinal salve for the habituated self-preoccupation that makes one sick, and the ultimate safe direction or refuge for the soul, lost in the rounds of infinite time and space.

Having not been raised with karmic cosmology, some of us may be working at a disadvantage to wrap our minds around the unparalleled opportunity now. Merit-making is not innately part of our worldview. But we have a chance now to change our mind about service, to see it not as a one-off charity event for the less fortunate or downtrodden, or a chance to pat ourselves on the back for helping others out.  The service that Lama Konchog and the Rachen nuns emulate for us, represents a whole new way of life, I call living with the heart turned inside out, healing our soul from the impoverishing forces of materialism, scientific reductionism, and nihilism, which have alienated us while destroying our planet. Life-long service is not attached to the results, expects no rewards or accolades, and is tempered with humility and even invisibility. Through service, we also have a chance to strengthen not only our understanding of infinite consciousness, interdependence, and karmic consequentiality, but also develop guru devotion, the root of the gradual path, universal altruism, the impetus of the path, and correct view of emptiness, the culmination of the path. In other words, how we serve Geshe-la, the Rachen community, and the Stupa, can be a complete Dharma practice in itself, a lifelong karma yoga. Service doesn't have to be a burdensome obligation with hidden strings attached, it can be the very nectar that nourished Konchog in his mountain cave for decades and has kept the nuns 
buoyant in this remote place at the edge of the world.

Surprisingly, I’m coming down from the Himalayas, like coming down from psychedelics, very physically worn out but spiritually inspired by what I experienced on pilgrimage, and grateful for the changes in my attitude. You can follow along our incredible journey through my day-by-day impressions and photos I posted on Instagram. I hope they offer a glimpse of the beyul and all it encompasses and inspires the next step or phase in your journey.


So with this recent mindset transformation, I’m decidedly not going to pursue the familiar fundraising campaign strategy we have in the past. I'm not going to develop a 501c3 non-profit or roll out a Kickstarter. Not only is the administrative reality too cumbersome and tiering but charity work too often reinforces a false binary and hierarchy between self and other, while concealing where the true impoverishment lies. In my opinion, it's not the right tool for this job. Of course, the Stupa project does have an initial budget of around USD 1 million to be raised over the next two years, for the stupa construction and contents, very likely more will be required for structural improvements to the Rachen Nunnery, making it more conducive to learning the lam-rim and engaging in retreats just as Lama Zopa envisioned and advised before he passed. The reality is money will have to be raised, a lot of it.

Geshe-la's commitment to fulfilling his guru's wishes is to transform Rachen and the Stupa into a vibrant Dharma epicenter for lam rim study and retreat, each year drawing Tibetan and Nepali devotees from around the entire Himalayan region for an annual festival so that they can preserve their own culture, and legacy while awakening their minds. Perhaps $1 million seems an insurmountable amount to raise for people like us of relatively modest means. The $30K we donated to Rachen the last time we nun-raised was already an extraordinary feat. But, this time, we are not alone, Geshe-la assembled a small group of benefactors from countries all around the world to help broadcast this very message reminding us that “nothing is impossible when you lose your ordinary mind, and use your Dharma heart.” One of these benefactors, for example, was able to raise a half million dollars for post-earthquake relief in the Tsum Valley villages several years ago, precisely because she was dealing with patrons from Malaysia, Singapore, and other Asian countries where the notions of service and merit-making are more common and naturally woven into their worldview. When it comes to seizing the opportunity to embody generosity, Western spiritual communities have a lot to learn from our Dharma brothers and sisters in Asia.

Once we get the underlying motivation aligned, transforming the charity mindset into the merit mindset, the horizon is wide open as to how you might like to intersect and support the Stupa project. Geshe-la told us that the means do not justify the ends, so the way we raise money together is just as important as the final donation amounts themselves. “Fundraising should be done with joy, with ease, and without stress”, Geshe-la reminded us before we left. “It should feel natural, and done with a pure, generous heart.” The amount is not what is important, it's the pure intention. In other words, no arm-twisting, guilt-tripping, false hierarchy, sympathy, or any kind of regret that might diminish the quality of the motivation. Further to this, Geshe-la briefly mentioned his reluctance that the Rachen World Peace Stupa project would become a public spectacle or a highly visible campaign. I could be wrong, but assume he was concerned his project not compete with or detract from the much more well-publicized Stupa of Complete Victory dedicated to his late guru Lama Zopa Rincpoche's swift return, which is simultaneously seeking donations and being constructed by FPMT at Kopan Monastery. As he explained, "Everything in the Tsum is hidden, modest, and very humble." At first, this felt like a contradiction to me, how should we raise funds and greater awareness but do it very quietly or selectively? Then I remembered not to use my ordinary rational mind, but to rely on faith and use my Dharma heart. Please think on this koan with me as we develop our projects, message, and target audience, remembering Tsum is like the Dharma Amazon Jungle or Great Barrier Reef, and asking how can we support its preservation for posterity, without also attracting attention or energies that are misaligned. 

These are some parameters to consider when engaging in service based on my observations and conversations during the pilgrimage. I hope they're helpful as you develop our strategy to support the Stupa and Rachen. In the past, I have been in absolute awe about the service projects people initiated to raise funds, including custom mind training (lojong) and lam rim card decks, beautiful handmade malas and tsa tsas, yummy granola, public teaching events, and group dinner parties, etc. Not only did they yield funds, but more importantly they were fun, created community, and galvanized our collective efforts during the dark days of the pandemic. In The Crucible we also discussed personal projects, I called them our moonshots, taking on a seemingly impossible task from the tantric vantage point of already experiencing resultant success. There may be a way for some of you to merge your moonshot project with the Rachen Stupa project.

For example, one of our members will lead a purification retreat that feels like a stretch in her capacity, meanwhile, the proceeds will be donated to the Stupa. It's a win-win. Then there are other avenues that don't involve money raising at all, their value and contribution are inspirational, energetic, educational, and the like. Filmmaker Matthew Freidell's new and riveting film series The Missing Peace free on YouTube, followed our pilgrimage with Geshe-la last year to the Borobudur mandala in Java, exemplifies how one can transform efforts into service without raising a single dollar. Later this year filmmaker Phillip O'Leary likewise will release his compelling documentary and intimate portrait of Geshe-la shot in the Tsum on our 2022 group pilgrimage. The long hours and financial resources both these filmmakers committed to their labor of love teach us all how to live in service without attachment to fame and fortune, but rejoicing in merits and living in virtue. I watched service transform them into better fathers, partners, and human beings. 


As for my personal service project, Geshe-la accepted my sincere request that Emily and I develop an annual two-week lam-rim retreat at Rachen Nunnery so that foreigners from around the world can also converge each year in the Tsum Valley beyul for intensive study and practice just like the Himalayan community. This will be our commitment and contribution, as we expect proceeds from the annual retreats will help sustain the nunnery, its physical premises, ethos, and legacy, well beyond the Stupa's opening. Imagine yourself among 30 pilgrims each year trekking up to Rachen Nunnery from Kathmandu over three days, visiting holy places on a pilgrimage around the Tsum Valley, receiving powerful teachings from Geshe-la directly inside the World Peace Stupa, and bonding with the nuns, and our dharma brothers and sisters. In reciprocity, it will be our honor to help maintain and sustain Tenzin Zopa's mandala for posterity ensuring future generations likewise come under the protection of its unparalleled refuge. We expect our first annual retreat will coincide with the Stupa’s opening in 2026, and it will be our honor to host you there like a homecoming each year.


So, for now, what I’m going to do is simply share stories and images from our unforgettable pilgrimage, as you incubate your ideas about service. In the meantime, my team will build a webpage on the GradualPath platform for the Rachen World Peace Stupa Project with payment gateways for gifts with 100% of the proceeds (minus transaction fees) going directly to Geshe-la for the Project. We can mention your projects on the site to amplify the inspiration. I'll also share a Whatsapp group chat where you can organically share thoughts and even develop small group initiatives, building decentralized momentum together. If we reach the $1 million target within two years, then wonderful, we'll all rejoice. If we don’t meet the target but manage to stay aligned in virtue with sound motivation and committed practice, well that’s perfect too, and we'll also rejoice in having healed our soul while dismantling any false notions of a savior complex. We have nothing to lose, and everything to gain.

I pray one day we’ll all come to understand what a blessing it is to metaphorically place even one handful of sand in the Stupa’s foundation, to answer the call of a lifetime without hesitation or delay just like those two Tsum villagers, and to think of others so far into the future, nameless faceless ones struggling in samsara, just like Lama Konchog did for us seemingly alone from a cave at high altitude for nearly a quarter century, and yet more intimately connected than many of us ever feel in our sprawling modern cities.

By the way, I did grab a handful of stones, thought of you, prayed deeply, and placed them into the foundations of the Stupa. I hope we all stay connected with each other, through this special place, and all it stands for. 



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