Lama Ole Nydahl
Dear friends around the world,
I first heard of Lama Ole Nydahl while browsing through a random Buddhist article online many years ago. He did not stand out at that time because he seemed to be just another self-proclaimed Western lama. Recently, I revisited his story when my teacher, His Eminence the 25th Tsem Rinpoche told me that he would like his story featured on this blog.
While researching, I found that there are both positive and negative opinions about him online. When I searched for further information about his centre, I may have identified the reason. Through his hard work, he has developed a huge organisation consisting of over 600 centres, mainly throughout Europe. It is a massive organisation with thousands of members and naturally such a successful organisation will invite detractors as well.
Whatever criticism anyone may have for him, Lama Ole Nydahl certainly has a large appeal in Europe. The success of his organisation is commendable but even more remarkable for me is his devotion in spending all these years fulfilling the request of his teacher. For me, that incredible devotion says a lot about his character as a person and I am sure that will mean powerful blessings for him as a Dharma teacher. He is indeed a great inspiration due to his devotion to his teacher and steadfastness in keeping that devotion alive through the years, even after his lama has passed away.
PS: I would like to thank Valentina Suhendra, Pastor Niral and Pastor Jean Ai for helping to edit and proofread this article.
Pastor David Lai
Lama Ole Nydahl is one of the handful of Western teachers who is a fully qualified lama and meditation master. He is a lay lama of the Karma Kagyu lineage of Tibetan Buddhism. Together with his wife Hannah Nydahl, they founded Diamond Way Buddhism, which is a worldwide Karma Kagyu Buddhist organisation for lay practitioners.
Ole Nydahl was born in North Copenhagen on March 19, 1941 where he also grew up. In the early 1960s, he served briefly in the Danish Army before returning to his studies at the University of Copenhagen. He majored in philosophy, English and German. He completed the examen philosophicum, a mandatory introductory course in philosophy with the highest grade. After that, he pursued a doctoral thesis on Aldous Huxley’s Doors of Perception but he did not manage to complete this endeavour. As a brash young man, Ole Nydahl was involved in boxing, race car driving and travelling vast distances from Denmark to Nepal on several occasions.
Journey Into Buddhism
In 1968, Ole Nydahl married a young and beautiful Hannah. They spent their honeymoon in Nepal where the young couple met Lopön Tsechu Rinpoche, an important Drukpa Kagyu master who changed their lives. They became his students and thus began their life-long journey into Buddhism.
In the following year (1969), Hannah and Ole Nydahl met the 16th Karmapa Rangjung Rigpe Dorje, the head of the Karma Kagyu School and soon became his first Western students. Subsequently, the young couple received the most important empowerments and teachings of the Karma Kagyu lineage from the 16th Karmapa himself.
They would go on to meet with other important Kagyu masters such as Kalu Rinpoche, as well as high lamas from other Tibetan Buddhist schools such as the Dalai Lama, and receive empowerments and teachings from them as well. Later, the Nydahls also became students of the 14th Shamarpa Mipham Chokyi Lodro. From the Shamarpa, they received the Bodhisattva vows and teachings on Gampopa’s Jewel Ornament of Liberation.
The following is a list of empowerments and transmissions that they received:-
- Mahamudra (‘The Great Seal’ or ‘Chag Chen’ in Tibetan – the highest Buddhist view of the nature of reality) from the 16th Gyalwa Karmapa
- Kagyu Ngagdzo – the collection of the most important tantric transmissions of the Karma Kagyu Lineage from the 16th Karmapa (1976) and Kongtrul Rinpoche (1989)
- The Bodhisattva Vow (the promise to become enlightened for the benefit of all sentient beings) from Shamar Rinpoche, the second highest lama of the Karma Kagyu lineage (1970)
- The Four Foundational Practices (Ngondro) from Kalu Rinpoche (1970-1971)
- Kalachakra (The Wheel of Time initiation) from Kalu Rinpoche, Tenga Rinpoche (1985), His Holiness the Dalai Lama (1985 and 2002), Lopon Tsechu Rinpoche (1994), Beru Khyentse Rinpoche (2009) and His Holiness Sakya Trinzin (2010)
- The Six Yogas from Naropa (Advanced Tantric Meditations of the Kagyu lineage): Lama Ole and Hannah Nydahl received this transmission 1976 in Ladakh together with Tai Situ Rinpoche from his yogic teacher
- Phowa (Transference of Consciousness practice) from Ayang Rinpoche (1972)
- Chik Tsche Kun Drol (a collection of Kagyu initiations) from Tenga Rinpoche
- Rinchen Terzo (Treasures of the Nyingma transmission) from Kalu Rinpoche (1983)
In addition to the above, the Nydahls received other initiations and teachings from the above teachers and other masters such as Dilgo Khyentse Rinpoche, Gyaltsab Rinpoche, Ogyen Tulku Rinpoche, Bokar Rinpoche, Gyaltrul Rinpoche and others.
The Founding of Diamond Way Buddhism
In 1972, the 16th Karmapa requested Ole and Hannah Nydahl to proliferate the teachings of the Karma Kagyu lineage in the West and to build Buddhist centres in his name. Then in 1983, the Shamarpa endorsed Ole Nydahl to be a Buddhist master. Then again in 1995, Khenpo Chodrak Thenpel Rinpoche named Ole Nydahl a lama, on behalf of the Buddhist Institutes of Gyalwa Karmapa.
In fulfillment of the wishes of their teacher, the 16th Karmapa, Lama Ole and Hannah Nydahl founded a number of Buddhist centres beginning in Austria, Norway, Sweden and Denmark. As of 2012, the Nydahls had established over 629 Buddhist centres on behalf of their teacher. Lama Nydahl maintained these centres by travelling twice a year in order to visit and teach his students.
For the last 40 years, he has constantly travelled to give teachings. It is said that he was in a different city almost every day. In 2012, his teachings were mentioned and lauded by the Shamarpa himself. Wherever he travelled to, Lama Ole would give teachings, meditation courses, confer Buddhist refuge – a formal rite to become a Buddhist – and the Bodhisattva Vows, which is a formal rite and teaching on dedicating one’s life towards benefiting others. This is the main goal of all those seeking enlightenment on the Mahayana path.
Furthermore, Lama Ole would also give advance teachings on Mahamudra and Phowa. In 1987, Lama Ole Nydahl began to give teachings on the practice of Phowa at the request of the Shamarpa. Since that time, Lama Ole Nydahl has given Phowa teachings or the “Meditation of Transference of Consciousness” to more than 75,000 students around the world and is recognised as a Phowa master himself.
Aside from giving teachings, Lama Ole Nydahl and his wife Hannah organised teaching tours for some of the highest Kagyu Buddhist teachers throughout various European countries and later in North and South America, Russia and Australia as well. Aside from the 16th Karmapa, they invited and translated for Shamar Rinpoche, Jamgon Kongtrul Rinpoche, Gyaltsab Rinpoche, Beru Khyentse Rinpoche, Kalu Rinpoche, Topga Rinpoche, Tenga Rinpoche, Bokar Rinpoche, Lopon Tsechu Rinpoche, Trungpa Rinpoche and Ayang Rinpoche.
While working with his students, Lama Ole Nydahl developed a way of transmitting the teachings without having to learn the Tibetan language or customs. The meditations and practices have already been translated into the major European languages. It is essential for people to understand and read the meditations in a language that they are familiar with in order for Buddhism to become established in the West.
Lama Ole Nydahl created his enormous organisation so it is made up entirely of volunteers, with no paid staff. The organisational structure is designed to be democratic and friendly, which is ideal and appealing to the Western audience. Following tradition, Lama Ole Nydahl grounds his students with a set of Ngondro practices originally taught by the 9th Karmapa Wangchuk Dorje. This particular Ngondro lineage is a set of four foundational practices that are intended to prepare the student’s mind for enlightenment – a meditation on Chenrezig ‘Buddha Loving Eyes’, which is more popularly known as the Buddha of Compassion and several forms of Guru Yoga or meditations on uniting one’s mind with the lama (as taught by the 16th Karmapa).
Lama Ole Nydahl is hailed as “the most lasting influence on the Buddhist practice scene in Denmark” and “has in many ways been the icon of living Buddhism in Denmark” by Jørn Borup, a Professor of Religion at Aarhus University. The total number of Nydahl’s followers is unknown but a conservative estimate puts this number at approximately 15,000 devoted students and 70,000 casual followers all over the world. Just within Germany alone, the German Buddhist Union (Deutsche Buddhistische Union) estimates that about 20,000 people regularly visit Diamond Way Buddhism centres and groups.
In 2007, Hannah Nydahl passed away from cancer and one of the last deeds that she performed in this life was to sign the contract to purchase the massive Europe Centre. This is now the main international meeting place or headquarters for Diamond Way Buddhism and sits on a beautiful site in the Bavarian Alps.
Embroiled in the Karmapa Controversy
When the 16th Karmapa passed away in 1981, controversy erupted when two potential successors were discovered – Trinley Thaye Dorje and Ogyen Trinley Dorje. The 14th Shamarpa, who is one of the four main Kagyu lineage holders traditionally appointed to recognise the incarnation of the Karmapa discovered and recognised Trinley Thaye Dorje. As Hannah and Ole Nydahl regarded Shamar Rinpoche as one of their teachers, they supported his recognition of Trinley Thaye Dorje as the 17th Karmapa. Hence through them, over 600 Diamond Way Buddhism centres came to support Trinley Thaye Dorje as the 17th Karmapa.
It was Tai Situ Rinpoche, another Karma Kagyu lama, who recognised the other candidate, Ogyen Trinley Dorje. The Dalai Lama confirmed Ogyen Trinley Dorje as the Karmapa after he had been requested to do so by two of the Karma Kagyu lineage holders, Tai Situ Rinpoche and Gyaltsap Rinpoche. However, supporters of Karmapa Trinley Thaye Dorje openly questioned the Dalai Lama’s confirmation, asserting that the Dalai Lama is traditionally not entitled to do so as this is strictly a Karma Kagyu affair, and the Dalai Lama is a Gelugpa lama.
On top of that, Ogyen Trinley Dorje’s claim to the Karmapa’s seat is based on a letter presented by Pema Tonyo Nyinje, 12th Tai Situpa. The supporters of Karmapa Ogyen Trinley claim that it was written by the 16th Karmapa in order to predict the identity of his future rebirth. In order to challenge this, Lama Ole Nydahl, the Shamarpa and Topga Rinpoche (the general secretary of the Karmapa’s administration) requested that the letter be tested and its authenticity be verified as they believed that Tai Situ Rinpoche himself forged the letter. They requested independent experts, including forensic document examiners, to verify the authenticity of the letter. However, Tai Situ refused to allow this to take place on the grounds that it would be a violation of a sacred object.
Due to his role in the Karmapa controversy, Ole Nydahl drew severe criticism by the supporters of Karmapa Ogyen Trinley Dorje, including the authors Mick Brown and Lea Terhune, both students of Tai Situ Rinpoche. Furthermore, some Karma Kagyu practitioners have even gone so far as to place the blame squarely on Lama Ole Nydahl for causing the 1992 split within the Karma Kagyu School, despite lacking any evidence to support this accusation. They also claimed that he had broken his samaya with his teachers – a severe breach one’s spiritual commitment and bond with one’s lama in Vajrayana Buddhism.
Since his emergence as a prominent teacher and Karma Kagyu master, Lama Ole Nydahl has always faced criticism. Burkhard Scherer, a Professor of Comparative Religion at Canterbury Christ Church University, England argued that Nydahl has never gone on a three-year retreat, which he calls “the traditional qualification as a lama.” In his defence however, the 16th Karmapa stated that “if someone has a greater wisdom and capacity for penetrating the teaching, then even without doing a three-year retreat, it is possible for one to experience definite understanding and realisation.”
In 2009, the 17th Karmapa Trinley Thaye Dorje travelled to the Europe Centre to give teachings during the Second Summer Course. It was here that Lama Ole Nydahl ceremonially presented his 600 over Buddhist centres under Diamond Way Buddhism to the Karmapa. In doing so, he fulfilled the request given to him by his teacher, the previous 16th Karmapa. This shows how devoted Lama Ole Nydahl is to his teacher, his lack of attachment to the power and influence that comes with being head of 600 centres, and how Lama Ole fulfilled his commitment to his teacher, continuing in to his teacher’s next incarnation.
His activities to spread the Dharma have not gone unrecognised. In 2013, the 17th Karmapa Trinley Thaye Dorje presented him with a set of brocade robes while celebrating the Kagyu Monlam in Bodhgaya, India. This offering was to thank him for his 40 years contribution of spreading Buddhism in the West. It can only be his guru devotion and the blessings of his lamas that despite criticism, Lama Ole Nydahl’s organisation continues to grow.
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