Sakya Losal Choe Dzong

Tibetan Buddhist Society of Canberra

Obituary of Laurence Khantipalo (1932-2021)

By Anonymous (not verified) on 9th July 2021, 12:12

Laurence Khantipalot

Laurence Khantipalo was born in London in 1932, and was educated at Thetford Grammar School in Norfolk, England. After training as a horticulturalist, he worked at Kew Gardens in London. During his national service as a British soldier in the Suez Canal, he read a book on Buddhism by Christmas Humphreys, which inspired in him a life-long interest in Buddhist studies. He joined the Buddhist Society in London and became an avid reader on Buddhism. His readings inspired him to travel to India, where in Bangalore he received full ordination as a Bhikkhu from Ven. Buddharakkhita Thera. He was given the name Khantipalo (‘Keeper of Patience’). He accompanied Dr. Ambedkar and Sangarakshita on a teaching tour of central and western India. He was later invited to Thailand, and resided at the Royal Monastery of Wat Bovoranives in Bangkok from 1963 to 1972. He became a very accomplished Pali scholar, and published a great many books and articles on Buddhism.

The Sangha-raja of Thailand, Ven. Phra Sasana Sobhana, sent him to Australia to promote Buddhism. He arrived in Australia in 1973, and became extremely influential in establishing many Buddhist groups all around Australia and New Zealand. Some important Theravadin Buddhist temples in the country are due to his initiative and selfless work; these include Wat Buddharangsee in Stanmore, Wat Rattnapredeepa in Adelaide and Wat Dharmarangsee in Forest Hills. He founded Wat Buddha Dhamma at Wisemans Ferry, outside Sydney, in 1978. He built the beautiful sala (open pavilion) there, working for thirteen years in frost and fire as an ordinary worker with the title of the abbot. ‘The Wat’, as he used to call it, became his seat that attracted many seekers. He was assisted to realise this project with the help of many devotees, including the generosity of a German woman named Ilse Ledermann, who became his student. She was later ordained as Ayya Khema and became a teacher on her own right. There are many others who were his students, such as Venerable Chi Kwang Sunim, who later became ordained and chose to follow Korean Buddhism. Tenzin Phil, who lived at Wat Buddha Dhamma many years as his student, also became ordained and now practices in the Sakya tradition of Tibetan Buddhism.

At Wat Buddha Dhamma he met Susanya, who became ordained. They formed a close bond and friendship, and later when Susanya met the Tibetan Dzogchen teacher Namkhai Norbu Rinpoche and returned to the Wat to begin practicing Dzogchen practices, Laurence as a monk was drawn to the sound of these practices. Susanya later disrobed and became his attendant. Laurence recruited many novices and many became monks under different traditions, but none came back to help this venerable abbot. Some, since disrobing, have become psychologists or instructors on mindfulness-based stress-reduction and the like.

Long before he was ordained as a Theravadin monk, Laurence received a Vajrayana initiation from a Tibetan lama in Kalimpong, India, which he said left a long-lasting impression to awaken his connection to the greater whole of the Buddhist tradition. After thirty years as a Theravadin monk, including extended periods as a forest hermit, he pursued further research into Mahayana Buddhism, in particular the Tibetan Dzogchen tradition. In the late-1980s, he invited Tibetan teachers of various traditions (including myself) to Wat Buddha Dhamma, to teach. In particular, he hosted several Dzogchen retreats there. While his non-sectarian approach widened his circle of friendship, it also became a cause of crisis in terms of the future direction of the Wat.

Later when he disrobed, when asked to leave by people at the Wat, he wrote a four-page-long letter entitled Confession of a Reluctant Theravadin. In the letter, he mentions a close connection between him and Susanya, who he said ‘became the sister he never had.’ After noticing a profound change in her life, Khantipalo was so influenced by her that he too travelled to USA to attend Dzogchen teachings with the late Namkhai Norbu Rinpoche. He wrote that this was the best thing that ever happened to him in his life. Perhaps Laurence attained a life-changing realisation as this point?

He was very humble, wearing lay clothes and mixing with ordinary people. His departure from the Wat did not slow his Dharma activities. As a layman, he visited Dhammika, a fellow Dharma practitioner from Sri Lanka, whom he married in 1993. Her companionship and unconditional service to him enabled him to teach again. Through their selfless partnership, they created a Buddhist community in far north Queensland. He adopted his old name Laurence Mills, and travelled around the country doing admirable Dharma work. Although he became a practitioner of Dzogchen and also deity-yoga, the teachings he gave were still based on the authentic Theravadin tradition.

In 1991, he moved to Cairns and established the Bodhicitta Buddhist Centre. He invited many teachers there from various Buddhist traditions (including myself). He also encouraged many Queenslanders to invite teachers to their town, as a result of which many centres have sprung in central and far north Queensland. They include Ananda Buddhist Centre in Rockhampton, Khacho Yulo Ling in Cairns, Tharlam Ling Buddhist Centre in Townsville and Magnetic Buddha Dharma on Magnetic Island which are all still very strong groups. Through these groups several high lamas, including His Holinesses the 41st and 42nd Sakya Trizins and His Eminence Kyabje Chogye Trichen Rinpoche have visited, giving precious teachings in the region. Khantipalo’s life has been solely dedicated for the growth of Dharma in Australia. As one of the members of Ananda Buddhist centre writes:

"Khantipalo brought Buddhism to Rockhampton in 1997. It still continues and many people are benefitting from it. We are very indebted to Laurence Khantipalo. May this help him to attain Nirvana!"

Laurence later divorced and closed his centre in Cairns. Some of the remaining funds were donated to Khacho Yulo Ling. In 2010 he re-ordained as a novice in the Vietnamese Mahayana tradition. He received several Vajrayana empowerments from me, including White Tara for long life. Diagnosed with progressive mini-strokes, his fellow Dzogchen practitioners Gary Dellora and Michael Wells became his legal guardians. After a long stay with Gary, he moved to the Clarinda Manor nursing home in 2012. Its dedicated staff and a small devoted group of Dharma practitioners took care of him, visiting and feeding him most days of the working week. Practitioners shared their spiritual practices with him till the day he departed. Though he couldn’t speak and was wheelchair-bound, he often uttered one word with a glowing smile: “Shine”.

He is one of the founding fathers of Buddhism in Australia, and is well-known for his inspirational practice and teaching. Many of his colleagues still cannot fathom why he disrobed from being a Maha-sthavira (great elder) at the peak of his career, but some, like this writer, knew very well how Laurence unfolded from rigidity to openness, like a fully blossomed flower. Many Buddhist adepts like Virupa and others have done this at the peak of their career. Becoming attached to status, rigidity and fixation is a deadlock in which many seekers stay stuck with profound loneliness, which fails to be in accord with the true spirit of the Dharma. Only a few dare to be different, by not hiding in their robes and status, which is the real samsara. For those who knew Laurence Khantipalo, he never let them lose their gratitude and respect for his life-long work. After a lifetime of service to Buddhism, he finally succumbed to ill health and passed away on 5th July 2021, surrounded by team of fellow practitioners who chanted the Vajra Song, which was his long-standing request when he was close to passing away. Some staunch Buddhists may say, “had he passed away at a temple or home, at least his holy body would not have been moved so swiftly.” He lived 89 years, which is a good innings for a man who was asked to leave 31 years ago by supposed devotees, who turned out to be little more than cultural Buddhists. Not only is it rare to see hard-working teachers, it is even rarer to find those with a compassionate heart. Laurence Khantipalo left a legacy by living a noble example of a kind-hearted person in all situations.

– By Lama Choedak Rinpoche