Hannah: Buddhism’s Untold Journey

1 hr 29 min 37 sec
History, Biography

Hannah Nydahl was a Danish woman, a Buddhist practitioner and teacher who devoted her life to establishing Tibetan Buddhism around the world. She was widely respected for her work, devotion and accomplishments within the Buddhist community. A Danish newspaper referred to her as the “Mother of Buddhism”. The Department of the Study of Religion at University of Aarhus said:

Hannah was the youngest daughter of four siblings, born after the war to a Danish academic family. “I used to have a lot of questions,” she said in an interview about her childhood. “I would wonder about the existence of many things. Christianity was definitely not giving the answers I was looking for.”

Hannah studied French and Danish at Copenhagen University, where she met the wild but charismatic Ole Nydahl, “She was a little concerned by my brother and me because we were quite rough, Danish rough.” recalls Lama Ole. However, their strong connection was obvious from the first moment.

Their curiosity to find and experience the free nature of mind, coupled with their idealism led them on the hippie trail. They travelled overland to Nepal in ‘68 where they met a prominent and powerful Bhutanese lama, Lopen Tchechu Rinpoche. He became their teacher and stayed by their side until his death in 2003.

It was through him that they met the man who would change their lives – His Holiness the 16th Gyalwa Karmapa, the head of the Karma Kagyu meditation lineage of Tibetan Buddhism, also called “the King of the Yogis”. They dropped all psychedelic approaches and focused exclusively on the Buddhist Path. Jigme Rinpoche, an attendant to the 16th Karmapa recalls, “When Karmapa came back to Rumtek he said, there is one couple, who are very special who will come here from Denmark. And we all wondered what kind of people they were and when they would come.”

Hannah and Ole travelled to Rumtek, Sikkim where they stayed for three years to live and practice with Karmapa. They also spent time in Sonada, Darjeeling practising under the instruction of Kalu Rinpoche.

After some years in the Himalayas, Karmapa called for them. He gave them the task of going home to teach meditation and Buddhism. “Karmapa said, I want you to do this, I want you to talk to your friends, start Buddhism in the West,” remembers Lama Ole.

The initial years in Europe were challenging. Hannah and Ole would clean schools at night and write and teach Buddhism during the day. They also wrote their first book, ‘Teachings on the Nature of Mind’. They also began to travel throughout northern Europe. While Ole set up centres in the name of the Karma Kagyu School and gave teachings, Hannah began to translate Buddhist practises under the guidance of the lamas.

In the 12 years leading up to Karmapa’s death in 1981, Hannah and Ole kept a very close connection to him. When he came to Europe they arranged tours for him, Hannah by his side, translating. Hannah became the guide for the lamas in Europe and later also in the Far East, translating and explaining this new world. For generations most of them had been in the isolated Himalayas and had never seen or connected with the West.

Hannah also began to translate for other high Tibetan Lamas including Shamar Rinpoche, Situ Rinpoche, Gyaltsab Rinpoche, Kalu Rinpoche Tenga Rinpoche, Ayang Tulku and many others. She soon became renowned for her unique understanding and experience of the Dharma, and her ability to express and embody it.

Hannah and Ole’s work did not stop in Western Europe. Karmapa instructed them to make centres all the way from Poland to Vladivostok, no easy task in the middle of the Cold War. Hannah and Ole managed to bring Tibetan Buddhism into every kind of society, retaining the essence of the profound ancient teachings but explaining them through modern Western experience in a way that remains unique to this day.

The Kagyu Crisis forced Hannah and Ole to face the influence that Chinese Communism and Tibetan politics was having on the lamas and their search for the new Karmapa. “We felt very responsible for preserving trust in the Dharma itself,” recalled Hannah. At this time she began working closely with Shamar Rinpoche, supporting him through the challenges.

She also began to work at the Karmapa International Buddhist Institute in Delhi. When she was asked to teach she chose to remain a translator. During that time she developed a closeness to the young 17th Karmapa. “She was a wonderful human being. She had great care and a great understanding. Because of her experience she would solve things, mend things, remedy things in the most peaceful way,” remembers Karmapa.

In 2006 Hannah was diagnosed with terminal lung cancer. She was given 3 months to live. It was an incredible shock for everyone. But Hannah herself had no fear.

All travelling stopped and she and Ole returned to Copenhagen to live out her last days in the centre they founded in 1974. “During that time what was so touching was to see those two,” remembers Ekhart, a close friend. “Hannah was holding Ole and cradling his head. You could see how deep a relationship can go when there is a beyond personal task that unites you.”

Almost exactly three months after the diagnosis, Hannah passed away whilst in meditation, with her husband and friends around her. Her legacy lives on in the people she touched and the centres she and Ole started during more than 35 years of work. “I’m very grateful to both of them and of course to Hannah particularly,” says Karmapa. “Now there are thousands and thousands of practitioners. They have connected those families, thousands of families, with the most precious Dharma. They have connected that. Tied the knot. And I think that’s amazing.”

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