The Many Lives of Jampa Dorje


Jampa Dorje brings his knowledge of Tibetan Buddhism to Ellensburg

Katherine Camarata, Senior Reporter

Students may have seen Jampa Dorje freely giving out hand-sewn books in front of the SURC, robes billowing around him while sharing philosophical joy.

From the streets of Berkeley during the post-Beat poet era to the farms of the valley as a cattle rancher to the mountains of Colorado studying Tibetan Buddhism, Jampa has lived many lifetimes within the span of his well-documented existence. 

Jampa’s unique bungalow in the heart of Kittitas Valley is home to over 400 “chapbooks” he penned alone and in collaboration with others. “Chapbooks” are short books that Dorje prints and sews himself, filled with prose, poetry and the trappings of a life fully lived. 

Jampa mentors young artists and poets locally, and created a collection of work by regional artists called the High Mountain Valley Local Authors Collection. The collection is available to read in the Special Collections at Brooks Library. 

Jampa began auditing philosophy courses at CWU in 2015 to bridge the gap between his study of Eastern philosophies and the work of Western philosophers like Nietschze, Kant and Heidegger. 

Each course that he takes is turned into a writing prompt and later into a “chapbook” that becomes part of his collection.

“Whatever the class was about, I needed to turn it into my writing about how I had come from being a Berkeley street poet to being a Tibetan Lama, and how I was reimagining things that I thought I had understood from years ago,” Jampa said.

Jampa studied Tibetan Buddhism in Colorado, secluded in a mountain cabin called Luminous Peak.

He said he studied primarily around women under the leadership of Lama Tsultrim Allione, author of Tibetan bestseller Women of Wisdom, in the retreat center she founded called Tara Mandala. Lama Tsultrim Allione gave Jampa his Buddhist name “Jampa Dorje”, which means Indestructible Loving Kindness.

“My teacher wanted there to be equal footing for women in tantric Buddhism and not have so much male domination as it tends to be patriarchal,” Jampa said. 

Jampa said those having long retreats at Tara Mandala might spend as much as a hundred days or up to six months in solitude with helpers bringing food to their space of isolation. 

“That part is very rigorously structured,” Jampa said. “Most of this tantra business is to get beyond these absolutes and into a less restricted zone, called Dzog Chen (Great Perfection). It requires this feminine approach to get to that branch of awareness.” 

Jampa doesn’t always feel he can detail his escapades or write about people in his life using his birth name Richard Denner or his Tibetan Buddhist name Jampa Dorje. He uses a fictitious alter ego named Bouvard Pécuchet as a pen name for many of his “chapbooks” and poems. 

“Bouvard says things I would never tell my mom,” Jampa said. “He can tell things that Richard couldn’t and Jampa (as a monk) shouldn’t.”

Jampa was born on Nov. 21, 1941 in Oakland, California and given the moniker Richard Lee Denner. He attended the University of California Berkeley. It was there that he became inspired to pursue writing.

Jampa said he learned “a spontaneous approach to using your words” from the beat poet Luis Garcia. He said Garcia showed him how to write poetry as though he was a jazz musician. 

According to Jampa, writing poetry does not entail some formula he has to follow, rather a flow of words presented in a way that sounds natural when read out loud. 

Jampa moved to Alaska in the early ‘70s and worked for the Ketchikan Daily News. He lived for two years in a fisherman’s cabin with his wife Cherie and their young son, Theo. Jampa later attended the University of Alaska at Fairbanks. 

While working as a graphic designer for The Queen Anne News in 1974, Jampa saw an ad seeking a cattle foreman and chose to make Ellensburg his new home.

“I irrigated the land, I rode, I took care of horses and a cattle ranch,” Jampa said. “I decided that this town would be a good place.” 

Jampa said it was always his goal to open a Berkeley-style bookstore somewhere outside of Berkeley.

By 1978, his dream manifested in the form of Four Winds Coffee, Tea and Books. Jampa operated the shop in downtown Ellensburg on the corner of Fourth St. and Pine St. for over twenty years. It served as a communal space for sharing ideas.

After a dark period and a battle with alcoholism, Jampa left Ellensburg hoping to discover the wellness that his soul was searching for. 

Jampa found himself learning from Sufi leaders, who told him that “God is the disease and God is the cure.”

Jampa said, “In my despair and aloneness and drunken state of mind, it sort of stuck.”

According to Jampa, the Sufi mystics advised him to study other practices outside of Islam. At age 55, he set out to study Tibetan Buddhism because he said it always resonated with him. 

“I had heard about the Dharma, but I hadn’t really practiced it,” Jampa said. “You can learn about the Four Noble Truths that Buddha speaks of, and you can try to put those in action if you study a little meditation. Having a teacher helps a lot.” 

The Dharma is the universal nature of reality taught by the Buddha, according to Jampa. 

Jampa described Tibetan Buddhism as a mixture of practices based on the teachings of Padmasambhava (a Buddhist Vajra master from the 8th and 9th century) that is “also kind of shamanistic, kind of this Dzog Chen thing which comes from Afghanistan.”

After studying at Tara Mandala for three years, he returned to Ellensburg to continue his work in the Ellensburg arts community. Jampa’s legacy includes his four children: Gina, Theo, Lucienne, and his late daughter Kirsten.

Jampa’s son and local vintage poster dealer, Theo Denner, said he is inspired by his father’s impact on the local art and poetry scene.

“Younger people seem to be attracted to him, and he gets them to think a lot and examine different philosophies, and really is able to bring that out and get them to have an opinion about things and make them think about their opinion and back it up,” Denner said. “With his poetry, I think he’s really influenced a lot of people and pushed them to express themselves and get up on stage.”

Jampa’s daughter-in-law, Melissa Denner, shared these sentiments and said she is inspired by Jampa’s commitment to his path and his kindness to everybody and everything.

“I really love how authentic and real he is,” Melissa Denner said. “I’ll go to a poetry reading and he’ll be in his Buddhist monk regalia, and he’ll be reading his poetry and he’ll just totally drop the f-bomb. I really love that he can embrace all the different aspects of life and self or non-self. He’s quite an amazing human being.”

Jampa’s work is available to view on his website, He is a fruitful poet, painter, collage-maker, and monk who has left a resounding and permanent echo across Kittitas Valley as a uniquely vibrant artist.