Ngala Nor’dzin Pamo and her husband Ngala ’ö-Dzin Tridral are a teaching couple within the Aro gTér tradition of the Nyingma School. They amalgamate practice, teaching, and the pastoral care of their apprentices with professional and family life.
Ngala Nor’dzin was born in Lichfield, Staffordshire. The weather was unusually stormy on
the night of her birth and there were severe thunderstorms and heavy rain throughout the week that
she was born. She grew up in the outer suburbs of Birmingham: Shirley, Solihull Lodge and later in
a village called Hampton in Arden. From an early age she began searching for her spiritual home. As
a young child she fantasised about a life as a religious teacher who was able to heal people and
had the ability to communicate with birds and animals. She says, of her early years:
to sing myself to sleep every night with hymns and popular songs that moved me. I never told anyone
about this imaginary life and it didn’t seem anything other than a childhood fantasy until
much later on.
Later she began to look in earnest for an outlet for her spirituality.
Her family was not religious and her parents expressed surprise and some concern when she began to
attend church services regularly. Despite her family’s discouragement she persevered:
I tried a couple of churches in my local area and eventually found one with which I was happy.
This church sang their services. It was wonderful. I absolutely loved it.
Ngala Nor’dzin found she did not have the type of faith demanded by Christianity. As a
teenager she still had many questions which remained unanswered and were beyond the capacity of the
vicar who took her for confirmation classes to answer in terms that were relevant to her life. She
I still knew, however, that I was looking for something. I knew in some way,
that I was still a spiritual person. Even as late as my first full-time job when I was seventeen, I
was telling people that I would be a nun or a missionary one day, even though I had found that
Christianity was not working for me.
Secondary education was not an enjoyable experience for Ngala Nor’dzin. She attributes her unfulfilling years at grammar school to a bias towards the value of scientific study rather than creativity. Although the school provided a good education and a valuable foundation for the training she undertook later in life, she felt so stifled that she decided to leave at sixteen. Just before she was 18, Ngala Nor’dzin’s eldest brother died. She left home shortly after his death and worked at various jobs in various parts of England over the next few years. At 23 she decided to return to full time education and attained a BA Hons in multi-disciplinary design, specialising in ceramics. During this time she took a particular interest in the Japanese tea ceremony for her thesis, and became fascinated by tea bowls and the spiritual relationship between the creation of a ceramic object and a ritual ceremony. In order to gain some understanding of the tea ceremony, she began to read books about Shinto, the ethnic religion of Japan, and about Zen Buddhism.
During the three years of her degree course, Ngala Nor’dzin struggled to come to terms with
the sudden, violent and traumatic death of her father, that had happened in her first term at
college. Ngala Nor’dzin decided to take a more practical interest in Buddhism hoping that
this would offer her a way of making sense of the painful experiences of her life. In 1980 she
attended her first retreat at the Lam Rim Buddhist Centre in Wales, and this began several years of
involvement with the Gélug tradition. She comments:
Within the space of that first
weekend I realised that I had found a home. I had discovered a group of people, an atmosphere, and
a practice that was both new and familiar, inspiring and perplexing – and they chanted. I
realised later that there was something in the singing of the church services when I was about 10
– 12 years old, that echoed the dönpa and yang of Tibetan
It was at this Gélug Centre that Ngala Nor’dzin first met Ngala
’ö-Dzin, Khandro Déchen and Ngak’chang Rinpoche. Ngak’chang Rinpoche
had been invited to teach at the centre by a resident western nun called Tsultrim Zangmo who was keen for people
to hear Buddhism in contemporary language from a western Lama. Chö-la Tsultrim was a great
inspiration and friend to Ngala Nor’dzin, but sadly died in 1984. Venerable Geshé
Damchö and Ngak’chang Rinpoche performed funeral rites for her on the top of Sugarloaf
Mountain near Abergavenny in Wales, in a very moving ceremony in which Ngak’chang Rinpoche
threw her ashes into the air. Later, quite by chance, Ngala Nor’dzin found herself living in
a flat next door to Ngak’chang Rinpoche and started to visit him often to ask questions,
especially on the nature of Tantra, and to practise tsog khorlo. She remembers:
Rinpoche always answered me so clearly, patiently, and humorously, that I was able to make sense
of the complicated presentations of Tibetan Buddhism I had received. Rinpoche made it real and
relevant for my life as an ordinary woman.
After a while Ngala Nor’dzin realised
that she would have to choose between the two traditions within which she had been practising and
studying – the Gélug tradition of the Lam Rim Centre or the Nyingma Tradition of
Ngak’chang Rinpoche. As she had taken no vows or entered into any commitments, it was not a
problematic decision. Ngala Nor’dzin had been finding it difficult to integrate the practices
of a monastic tradition into family life, and so made the decision to make her spiritual home in
the Aro gTér lineage of the Nyingma Ngakphang tradition. She says:
Rinpoche never disparaged or undermined the values and structures I was being offered at the
Gélug centre, he simply offered perspectives that made these teachings workable. It was only
years later that I realised I had been receiving oral transmission of Dzogchen from him in answer
to most of my questions about practice.
After attending several intensive teaching retreats, she asked Ngak’chang Rinpoche to become her tsa-wa’i Lama. Ngala Nor’dzin was ordained in 1987 and became the first disciple of Ngak’chang Rinpoche to take vajra commitment. She was also the first Western Ngakma to wear the robes of the white sangha (dGe dun dKar po) in the West. This was an important step, not only for her, but for Ngak’chang Rinpoche, as he had been given encouragement specifically to found a ngakphang sangha in the west by HH Dudjom Rinpoche. Thus Ngala Nor’dzin became the person who would establish the beginning of her Lama’s vision. Ngala Nor’dzin’s background in the Gelug tradition, her completion of the Tantric ngöndro, and her experience of practice during her pilgrimage to India, inform her understanding and experience of the different yanas of Tibetan Buddhism. In her teaching she is able to expand upon a subject with explanations of its relevance in relation to different vehicles of practice. This can be enlightening for those with knowledge of different, sometimes seemingly contradictory, perspectives of Buddhism and often helps to clarify confusion in relation to practice.
Ngala Nor’dzin dedicates all her working time to their growing sangha of apprentices and to the
Aro Lineage. After having worked as a school teacher and craft worker when she first came to live
in Wales, she retrained as a professional homoeopath while her children were little. She has also
trained in counselling, reflexology and hypnotherapy, She practised as a homeopath and
reflexologist for some years in Cardiff but eventually realised that she would have to give it up
to enable her to devote more time to her apprentices, Buddhist teaching and writing. Ngala
I realised that I could not be the homoeopath I wished to be with
the time I had available. There is simply not enough time in one’s life to have two
vocations, and my Buddhist practice, commitments and responsibilities had to be my first priority
plus my family commitments. In the end I felt it would not be fair to my patients to continue.
Her interest in health and medicine continues through the practice of the Aro Lineage diagnostic technique of pulse diagnosis and element balancing. Ngala Nor’dzin’s interest and accomplishment as a medical practitioner reflects the abilities of her previous rebirth Ngakpa Dawa Ngödrüp, a herbalist at the Aro Gar encampment in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century in Tibet. He was married to Khandro Chöying Nyima, one of the five mothers of Aro Yeshé, who has been reborn as Ngala ’ö-Dzin. Together they would make expeditions into the mountains to gather herbs.
Ngala Nor’dzin teaches on Open Teaching Retreats in the UK with Ngala ’ö-Dzin, and gives talks with him in their own locality. They embody the style of village ngakmas and ngakpas in the naturalness of their presentation and in their broad variety of Tantric craft skills. She has found her design training invaluable in her rôle as a ngakma. She is known in the Aro sangha for her ability as a seamstress and for her practical application as a craftswoman and ceramicist in particular. She established a nine year project to create 111 ceramic treasure vases (gTér bum), fulfilling one of Ngak’chang Rinpoche’s visions. These precious treasure vases were created during many retreats at their home, Aro Khalding Tsang, and fired in the kiln in the garden shed. They have now been distributed throughout the world in significant or auspicious locations. At one time she made a great many craft items, such as brocade chö-phens for drums; brocade frames for thangkas, instrument bags, Aro Lineage shawls, practice mats, ceramic skull bowls, and lineage robes. Her ceramic damarus were highly praised by Kyabjé Chhi’mèd Rig’dzin Rinpoche. Each year Ngala Nor’dzin leads a ten day craft retreat in Cardiff, during which apprentices work on an entire project. Past accomplishments have included the creation of appliqués of Yeshé Tsogyel and Khyungchen Aro Lingma, and the painting of the shrine room that hosts the meetings of the Cardiff Vajrayana Buddhist Meditation Group. Each retreat traditionally ends with a trip to a wild place of natural beauty where apprentices can practice appreciation and integration with the elements. Bird Rock (Craig Aderyn) where Khandro Déchen was ordained, and Cadair Idris in mid Wales, are places where treasure vases have been hidden.
Because of her extensive experience within Vajrayana, Ngala Nor’dzin has been writing articles based on her understanding since the early 1990s. Her work has been published in Vision magazine on numerous occasions. Her first book ‘Spacious Passion’ offers a Tantric perspective on the Four Thoughts that Turn the Mind to Practice, and is available on the website: http://www.spacious-passion.org and as a published book at http://www.lulu.com/content/493670/, or from Wisdom Books. Ngala Nor’dzin is an inspiring example of the integration of practice with family life. She and Ngala ’ö-Dzin exemplify the ancient tradition of the house holding ngakmas and ngakpas in the modern world. Her daily interaction with her family and with her apprentices is her practice. Her kindness, practicality and ability to get things done in the smoothest and seemingly effortless fashion is an inspiration to fellow practitioners and to all those who encounter her. As testament to this ability, her two mature and accomplished sons Daniel and Richard interact naturally with the sangha whilst continuing to study hard for exams at their local secondary school, often themselves acting as rôle models for their own friends and acquaintances.
Ngak’chang Rinpoche says of Ngala Nor’dzin:
Ngala Nor’dzin always had
a sense of activity arising from vision. I remember from very early on in our relationship that she
was enthusiastic to knit me garments which I had recounted from a dream. The garments no longer
exist, but at the time they served an important purpose. The importance of this, was that very
little had to be said or explained. She was quite capable of allowing everything to remain at a