Pema Khandro’s career as a Buddhist scholar and teacher emerged from a lifelong journey through eastern philosophy, Buddhism, Himalayan medicine and Yoga which led her throughout North America, Europe, India, Nepal and Tibet.
She first learned Buddhist meditation and philosophy when she was five and trained for a decade into her teens. She was most moved by the Buddhist view that every person has natural goodness in them. After this, she spent a few years exploring world religions. She meditated in Himalayan caves, spun with Sufis, prayed in Christian churches, sat in Quaker meetings, lit candles in ancient goddess temples, chanted in Hindu pujas and absorbed herself in yoga. She discovered that she appreciated the beauty in each tradition but found her home in Buddhist philosophy and practice. Compelled by the dynamic spectrum of practices in Buddhism, she immersed herself in Tibetan Buddhism’s intellectual and contemplative practices and eventually in scholarly research of its history.
Health and natural medicine are a major interest of Pema Khandro. After learning about cruelty to animals when she was a teenager, she became a vegan. She developed a passion for vegan lifestyle and organic foods though she advocates that there is not one right diet and lifestyle for everyone. This is why her organization and centers are dedicated to health education as well as to relying on non-toxic and sustainable resources as well as providing education for incorporating sustainability into one’s daily life.
During her yoga years, Pema Khandro trained in Hatha Yoga receiving certifications as an advanced yoga teacher in three different systems. She traveled to India, studied yoga philosophy and became a yoga teacher and yoga therapist. This led to teaching yoga, teaching meditation and training yoga teachers with a focus on integrating spiritual practice with embodied experience. Tibetan Yoga practices are a regular feature of practice at Pema Khandro’s residential centers. Tibetan Yoga practices are also part of the retreats, courses and health trainings that she offers.
This interest in body-mind sciences is what led her to learn Ayurveda and Tibetan Medicine, which she studied in India, North America and Europe. She studied Tibetan Medicine with Dr. Pasang and also studied Tibetan Medicine and Ayurveda with Dr. Naram in India.
She founded her first center and natural health clinic and school in 1999 when she was still a young girl. Since then she has run the Yogic Medicine Institute and has taught courses on integrating natural health, nutrition, and herbal knowledge into the work of health professionals from every field. The practice of nutrition and herbal knowledge is one of many practical aspects of the knowledge of Tibet’s Buddhist Yogis. Her dedication to the Tibetan Tradition of Buddhist Yogis with its long lineage of non-celibate practitioners stems from her respect for work, committed relationship and family as a fruitful basis for spiritual development.
When studying full time with her Buddhist Lamas, her studies drew her to India, Nepal, Tibet, Europe and throughout North America. Her studies of Tibetan Buddhism and Tibetan medicine connected her with the wish to promote the preservation and awareness of rare, local, smaller, diverse aspects of Himalayan cultures.
During her travels, she became familiar with the pressing need for caring for orphans and children’s education in Himalayas. Since relief efforts often overlook smaller but vital aspects of an endangered culture, she has pursued humanitarian projects for the children and elders who live in the borderlands and children of the ngakpa families in Tibet. Through this work she promotes a practice of Buddhism that is also committed to service, to give back by sustaining Tibetan traditions, ensuring that they flourish in their homeland. For more than a decade a yearly project of Pema Khandro’s community has been to fundraise to support the food, lodging, and education for children and elders in the Himalayas.
Pema Khandro received a recognition and enthronement by the head of the 900 year old Druk Tashi Dhargey Chokor Dechenling Monastery in Tibet, His Eminence Gyaldak Rinpoche. She was recognized as the present reincarnation (tulku) of an early twentieth-century yogini. She was given the title Pema Khandro Rinpoche when she received the lineage of this yogini who practiced in the Nyingma and Kagyu lineages in Eastern Tibet. She continues the legacy of those teachings focusing on Dzogchen, Chod and the Six Yogas. Gyaldak Rinpoche encouraged her to spread the esoteric teachings of Buddhism in North America and throughout the world.
Pema Khandro ordained in the Nyingma tradition and received authorization to pass the non-monastic lineage of Buddhist Yogis, Ngakpas and Naljorpas onto her students, a task which she has dedicated Ngakpa International to since 1999.
Although she studied with numerous teachers during the journey that began when she was five, her root teachers have been Gangteng Tulku Rinpoche and Ngak’chang Rinpoche each of whom who have also taught her students during many visits to her home and her centers and he regards her most important instruction as coming from a female teacher Ani Dawa. She also received empowerments་and teachings from many other great teachers who impacted her and inspired her including Khenpo Tsultrim Lodro Rinpoche, Gangten Tulku Rinpoche, Trulshik Rinpoche, His Holiness Dalai Lama, Ngakpa Lama Munser Rinpoche, Dudjom Rinpoche, Khenpo Sodargye, His Eminence Gyaldak Rinpoche, Namkhai Norbu Rinpoche, Chodpa Kunzang Dorjee, Lama Chodak Rinpoche, Ani Dawa, Chokyi Nyima Rinpoche, Lama Wangdu Rinpoche, Sangngak Tulku Rinpoche, Lama Pema, Lama Tenzin Rinpoche, Tsewong Rinpoche, Lama Tharchin Rinpoche, Lopon Phurba Dorje, Nechung Kuten Rinpoche, Khenpo Karma Wangyal, Khenpo Gawang Rinpoche, Lama Lhanang Rinpoche, Aku Nyangchag Jal, Gazing Rinpoche and Sherab Dorje Rinpoche.
Even though most of her primary teachers have been male, she is also grateful to have received a few teachings and empowerments from a few female teachers who she credits for having paved the way for women in Buddhism, without whom there would be many more obstacles for female teachers today such Ani Dawa, Jomo Samphel Dechen, Khandro Dechen and Jetsunma Tenzin Palmo.
Pema Khandro was given her name. This is a traditional practice in Tibetan Buddhism – names are conferred during refuge vows, initiations, ordination, and enthronements. She was given the name Pema Yingchuk Tsal by Gangteng Tulku Rinpoche. However, she received the title of Pema Khandro Rinpoche during her enthronement which was conferred by Gyaldak Rinpoche. In accordance with the tradition, in order to honor the interdependence with the history of the lineage, this is the name she uses when teaching. Read more about her recognition and enthronement here.
Pema Khandro’s Teaching Activities
In 1999, she founded the organization that became Ngakpa Intl. This started with opening a public center, clinic and several residential training facilities. These started in Southern California. The headquarters later moved to Santa Cruz and then later to Berkeley, in Northern California, where it is today.
The main residential center was previously in downtown Berkeley a few blocks from the University. It was known as the MahaSiddha Center. A dozen full-time residents lived there and practice together and local instructors lead regular community gatherings, meditation classes and discussion groups focused on Buddhist philosophy. Retreats and events with Pema Khandro and other Buddhist teachers were regularly held there for over a decade. This center was expanded and relocated into what is now known as Dakini Mountain in the Tahoe National Forest of Northern California close to Nevada City. Dakini Mountain is a thirty-five acre retreat off the grid in a pristine location. It is currently being developed as a pilgrimage site for Vajrayogini with a Vajrayogini stupa and peace garden planned.
Another residential community is located in Santa Cruz, California, known as the House of Bodhichitta. This center is the second center in Santa Cruz. It is the urban center which evolved from the mountain retreat center where the community was previously located. Khandro-Ling is the farm house in rural Virginia near Charlottesville, where students of Pema Khandro gather once a year for Vajra Sangha retreats.
Pema Khandro also developed a school for long-term training in Buddhist philosophy and practice. She developed this into The Buddhist Studies Institute, in California, a project of Ngakpa Intl a non-profit organization run with her friends and students who first joined her in 1998 – 2000, many of whom are still with her to this day. The community has continued to grow with the leadership of several of her students who serve their local communities as senior practitioners and instructors of classes in meditation and introductory courses on Buddhist teachings.
In 2003, she also opened the multi-level training programs to make available the whole scope of the Buddhist teachings which is presented through The Buddhist Studies Institute. Thus through the Vajrayana Training and the Ngakpa Seminary she continues offering long-term Buddhist education for serious students all over the world through retreats, courses and online trainings. She also regularly offers public teachings and programs. Her students regularly post and share these events at PemaKhandro.org, The Buddhist Studies Institute and through social media.
Today, Pema Khandro continues to be an advocate of the relevance of non-monastic Buddhist traditions as Buddhism takes shape in North America. She runs a residential center, leads a thriving community, runs a clinic and non-profit organization. She teaches courses regularly, pursues research projects and continues to cultivate a close relationship with her students and friends who work together in Ngakpa Intl and the North American Community of Buddhist Yogis.
Pema Khandro’s Academic Interests
Pema Khandro received her bachelor’s degree from the University of San Diego (Sociology with a minor in Gender Studies and Communication). She completed her Master’s degree studying Tibetan Buddhism at the University of Virginia. She is currently completing her PhD specializing in Buddhist Studies at the University of Virginia. Her research specializes in the history of Dzogchen, as well as the non-celibate Buddhist traditions of Tibet, with a sub speciality in gender and sexuality in Buddhism..
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