A Retreat of One’s Own

A visit with the dharma teacher Elizabeth Mattis-Namgyel. 

Trish Deitch

retreat of ones own

When she was young, Elizabeth Mattis-Namgyel spent a lot of time pondering where happiness came from. So after she grew up and graduated from World College West, in San Francisco, she journeyed to Nepal to look for a teacher. Shortly after, she went to meet with the great Tibetan master Tulku Urgyen, to seek help with her question. That’s when she met Dzigar Kongtrul, the young lama who would turn out to be her root teacher and her husband. He was twenty-one at the time, she twenty-three. On break at a teaching given by Tulku Urgyen, in October of 1985, he approached her.

Namgyel sits in her bright kitchen in Crestone, Colorado (population 600)—a remote, 160-acre land development with few paved roads and no streetlights, populated for the most part by a Zen center, a Carmelite monastery, and several Tibetan Buddhist retreat centers, including Kongtrul Rinpoche’s Samten Ling. There are two things right outside the front door of the house, which is spacious, with an adobe feel: a cat named Señor Don Julio, whom Namgyel rescued from the side of the road (a good deed), and who is now killing animals (how does one know, in the end, what’s really a good deed?); and a black plastic bag of garbage, which, once it’s in the one can that far-flung residents use for trash, will be pawed through by a sedan-sized bear who has lumbered down from the Sangre de Christo mountains for a meal.

Namgyel, who is forty-seven, is wearing jeans and T-shirt and drinking a glass of water. She is small, athletic-looking, and light, giving the impression, in some moments, of being just slightly less than earthbound. This also has to do with her demeanor, which is very warm and cordial, and yet distant. She is in no way hooked into trying to please anybody. She explains that, since her retreat, she is content to spend time alone and doesn’t feel a need to seek out social activity. On the other hand, she’s really up for talking about the dharma. None of this comes off as obnoxious. Renunciation is at the heart of the path, and Namgyel is one of the very few American born and raised dharma teachers who is actively working on realization (not her words) by way of long solitary retreats.

“When I first saw him,” she says, going back to her first meeting with Kongtrul Rinpoche, “I noticed a lightness, and his eyes were very clear.” The picture window beside her is filled with bright, white afternoon sunlight. “I started telling him what my questions were,” she says “and he spoke to me in a way that helped me understand what I needed to do. I thought to myself, ‘If only I could find a teacher just like that.’”

Then a friend said to her, “Do you know who that is? That’s Kongtrul Rinpoche.” His name didn’t mean anything to her. Her friend explained that Kongtrul Rinpoche was the son of the renowned Neten Chokling Rinpoche, and that he was trained in the Nyingma tradition to be a great master. So Namgyel’s teacher had found her, rather than the other way around. She remembers the words he used when speaking to her that first day: “Uncreated” and “Natural.”

“What he meant,” Namgyel says now, “was, ‘Stop trying to manipulate your experience and just be natural.’ These are still my main instructions to myself.”

Theirs was an unconventional marriage: Kongtrul Rinpoche’s life was, and is, about practice and teaching all over the world, and Namgyel’s soon became, and remains, about practice, contemplation, and serving the dharma. Namgyel began her first long retreat in 1997, when their son, Jampal—born in Nepal three years after they met—was nine. It was supposed to be a three-year retreat—with stretches at home, but mostly up at Samten Ling—but ended up lasting six years.

“I saw Jampal every day,” she says, “I had a bed for him in my cabin; and although Rinpoche often traveled, I received continuous instruction from him. As a family, we spent many hours walking the mountains above my cabin.” (Jampal, who is now twenty-one, left home when he was fifteen to go to prep school, and is currently studying Tibetan with his father, at the Guna Institute, Kongtrul Rinpoche’s school in Bir, India.)

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shawnon1's picture

Uncreated and natural is going to be a challenge for me living in the world of I.T. However, it is now a calling and your experience to just be with something, I am hopeful turns into the power to Just Be. So, here this morning, I will sit, longer than usual. And know that my tight chest is my call to uncreate and be natural. Because living in Los Angeles, doesn't seem natural. Namasté. Shawnon