Lama Zopa Rinpoche and others walking toward Trulshik Rinpoche’s monastery, Thubten Choling, Nepal, April 2017. A little above the monastery, where retreat huts are visible, is where Zina Rachevsky did her retreat. Photo by Ven. Roger Kunsang.

In the late 1960s, Zina Rachevsky requested Dharma teachings from Lama Yeshe—and that was the beginning of Lama Yeshe and Lama Zopa Rinpoche teaching Westerners and the planting of the seed that became FPMT. The story is told in detail here. In 1973, Zina Rachevsky undertook a retreat in Nepal near Junbesi, in the Solu Khumbu District. During the retreat, she fell sick, and despite taking medicine, died within a few days. 

Ven. Bu Norbu, who helped Zina at the time of her death, Nepal, April 2017. Photo by Ven. Roger Kunsang.

While visiting lower Solu Khumbu in April 2017, Lama Zopa Rinpoche went to Thubten Choling, the monastery founded by Trulshik Rinpoche, which was very close to where Zina did her final retreat and passed away. There, Rinpoche heard a first-hand account of Zina’s passing. Rinpoche met with Ven. Bu Norbu, an elderly monk from Thubten Choling who was there at the time. He told Rinpoche about how he had been a friend of Zina and helped her when she was staying above the monastery with her daughter Rhea. He was present when Zina died.

Vens. Roger, Tenzin Legtsok, and Ailsa Cameron were able to walk with him up to the site where Zina’s hut had been, although it is no longer there. A new retreat house is under construction on the same site, with a spectacular view of forested hillsides stretching down to the river valley far below.

With Ven. Legtsok translating, Ven. Bu Norbu told the story of Zina’s passing. This is what he shared as recorded by Ven. Ailsa Cameron: 

Ven. Bu Norbu, who was around thirty years old at the time, knew Zina and her daughter, Rhea, well. Zina would shave Bu’s head, and Rhea would tease him by sneaking up on him while he was reading his text and scattering the pages. When Zina suddenly became ill with stomach pain, Trulshik Rinpoche was away in Tengboche, in upper Solu Khumbu. When contacted, Rinpoche sent a message that Zina should take medicine for her illness. Zina had a plentiful supply of Western medicine, which she took, but her condition rapidly deteriorated over the following two days.

Shortly before Zina died, the military police, who had heard that Zina was seriously ill and close to death, came to the retreat house to ask what would be done with Zina’s money and possessions. Rhea, only seven years old at the time, spoke nicely to the police, explaining that there was nothing to worry about as everything had already been given to two Western monks (one of them the American monk, Ngawang Chötak) staying at the monastery. Bu said about Rhea, “She was very brave and clear when she spoke to the military police.” 

Bu explained that Zina died sitting up, reciting mantras, and holding a mala in one hand and Rhea’s hand in the other. He added, “Zina was unlike other people.” After Zina’s breath stopped, she remained in meditation for three days, still sitting upright. Bu said that during that time she looked alive.

After three days Zina’s face sagged and its color changed, and her body began to smell. Her body was then carried across the valley to be cremated at Thubten Choling’s consecrated cremation site, which has a mandala etched on a large stone and earth brought from many holy cemeteries in India.

Zina Rachevsky with Lama Yeshe and Lama Zopa Rinpoche before her ordination, 1967. Photo via Lama Yeshe Wisdom Archive.

Lama Zopa Rinpoche is the spiritual director of the Foundation for the Preservation of Mahayana Tradition (FPMT), a Tibetan Buddhist organization dedicated to the transmission of the Mahayana Buddhist tradition and values worldwide through teaching, meditation and community service.