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Lama Yeshe’s Tantric Teaching

Lama and HH Trijang Rinpoche, 1976From 1976: Heaven is Now! by Adele Hulse, Big Love author:

During this visit to Dharamsala, Gareth Sparham, one of the Westerners ordained at Bodhgaya in 1974, underwent public examination at Tushita. “Both lamas attended as well as  a number of Dharamsala geshes,” said Gareth. “I gave a talk on renunciation. I didn’t really  know anything about it so I just went on and on about how wonderful Lama Yeshe was. His head dropped lower and lower. When everyone had gone, he said to me, ‘Dear, never ever refer to me again!’ After that I started really studying hard and stayed on in Dharamsala for many years.”

Around mid-April, Lama Zopa Rinpoche decided to travel to south India for a short time to attend teachings at Sera Jé. Just before leaving Dharamsala, he told Thubten Gyatso, who was about to start a Mahakala retreat in Rinpoche’s room at Tushita, “I am sorry for the bad vibrations I have left in my room.” Gyatso found no bad vibrations, just several large scorpions. Gyatso was about to embark on a tantric practice but knew nothing about tantra. Tantra is sometimes called the resultant path, wherein a practitioner learns to think, speak and act in the present as if he or she were already a fully enlightened buddha.

 

From Lama Yeshe’s tantric teachings:

According to tantra, perfection is not something that is waiting for us somewhere in the future. “If I practice hard now maybe I will become a perfect buddha” or “If I behave well in this life and act like a religious person, maybe someday I will go to heaven.” According to tantra, heaven is now! We should be gods and goddesses right now. But at present we are burdened with limiting concepts: “Men are like this; women are like this; I am a certain way and there is nothing I can do about it” and so forth. This is why we have conflict within ourselves and with one another. All this conflict will dissolve as we train in the tantric point of view and recognize that each man is a complete man and each woman a complete woman. Furthermore, every man and woman contains both male and female energy. In fact, each one of us is a union of all universal energy. Everything that we need in order to be complete is within us right at this very moment. It is simply a matter of being able to recognize it. This is the tantric approach.

 

Thubten Gyatso: “The night before I started retreat Lama Yeshe called me into his big room at Tushita to explain the Mahakala practice to me. Lama’s face was very close to mine and it assumed a blue and incredibly wrathful appearance. To be qualified to do this retreat one is supposed to have taken certain initiations beforehand, but I had only received a Chenrezig initiation. ‘That’s okay,’ Lama told me. ‘You visualize yourself as Vajrasattva (the purifying buddha). Imagine your consort has one arm around your neck and with her curved knife she cuts your body into pieces. You die and your mind enters into her body, then you are born again, very pure and enlightened. You still feel like yourself but she has shredded your ego. Okay?” At the time, I knew nothing about tantra and this was so powerful for me. “Next morning breakfast was delivered to my room after my first meditation session.

One fried okra looking like a slab of green mucus. I sat on Rinpoche’s bed, my mind completely black, thinking, ‘How can I do retreat with food like this?’ Suddenly the front window flew open and in came Lama Yeshe’s hand. He was holding a fresh piece of Tibetan bread covered in Vegemite. I humbly accepted Lama’s offering and he walked away without a word. I resolved to never complain about food again.” Vegemite, a salty spread made from yeast extract, is a staple of the Australian diet. Lama Yeshe was always looking for healthy foods to introduce at Kopan and returned from a trip to Australia one year with jars of Vegemite. Not everyone became a convert to it.

There were two other students doing solitary retreats at Tushita that spring, one of them an Icelandic girl, Thorhalla Bjornsdottir. Lama Yeshe instructed her to spend two years in calm abiding (Tib. shiné; Skt. shamatha) retreat. In the practice of calm abiding one develops deeper and deeper levels of concentration by repeatedly stabilizing one’s attention firmly on an inner object while controlling outer distractions.

The lamas returned to Kopan in the latter part of April, Lama Yeshe from Dharamsala and Lama Zopa Rinpoche from south India. On May 1, Lama Zopa Rinpoche gave teachings to those students still staying at Kopan on the practice of prostrations to the thirty-five Confession Buddhas and on Jorchö, the lam-rim preliminary practices.

More teachers, More students

Lama Yeshe, Kopan, 1975From 1976: “Heaven is Now!” by Adele Hulse, Big Love author:

Lama Yeshe had planned for a Westerner to once again lead the spring meditation course and had asked Piero to do it, but unfortunately, Piero was now in Italy.

“I had been the Kopan typist since 1974,” recalled Thubten Pemo. She wasn’t the only one. Nicole Couture, Yeshe Khadro and others also typed constantly. Nicole had been warned that those who were smart didn’t admit to being able to type because they would immediately be given work. But Pemo always happily accepted typing work.

One day, she was walking with Marcel, for whom she was doing some typing. “We met Lama Yeshe on the path and asked him who was going to teach the course in Piero’s place. Lama looked at me and replied, ‘You. You can teach the course. Think about it and come back to me tomorrow and let me know.’ I couldn’t believe it. I knew nothing. My entire Dharma education consisted of four of Rinpoche’s courses. But since Lama had asked me, he must have thought that I could do it. Nevertheless, I was terrified. How could I possibly teach for four hours a day for thirty days? That’s one hundred and twenty hours! The next day I went to Lama’s room and said that if he wanted me to teach, I would teach. I thought Lama would tell me what to teach and in what order, and that he would teach me how to teach. But no. Lama said just one sentence to me. ‘You become Manjuishri and then you give the teachings.’ Of course, I had no idea how to become Manjushri.”

And so Thubten Pemo became the first Western female to teach an entire month-long lam-rim course at Kopan. Ngawang Chötak agreed to lead the meditations. It was an enormous job and Pemo spent every spare moment studying. The course began during the second half of March. At her request the lamas did a puja on the first morning of the course to bless it and then drove off in the Jeep, heading for the airport and India. They were returning to Dharamsala for the ordination ceremony of a new group of students.

Pemo’s course was a great success. Later, ten of Pemo’s students went to Dharamsala to do a month-long lam-rim retreat at Tushita. This all made Lama Yeshe and Lama Zopa Rinpoche so happy that Lama was heard to exclaim, “My nuns can teach! My nuns can teach!”

Rinpoche wrote her a beautiful letter of thanks:

Most dear Thubten Pemo Rinpoche,

How are you? We have met your incredible disciples. They look that they have gained much wisdom. That must mean you have that much wisdom. We think and HOPE that you will attain Manjushri soon by Mahakala’s continual protection. We will pray for that.

See you soon,

               Yeshe, Zopa

Among those at Pemo’s course were some very dedicated students, such as Dharmawati Brechbuhl from Indonesia, Caroline Crossman and Tony Beaumont from Australia, and several others who would become long-term practitioners. Since that time it has become quite normal for Western women to give Dharma teachings all over the world.

Lama’s Domestic Life

Front of photo given to Connie Miller by Lama Yeshe, 1976From 1976: “Heaven is Now!” by Adele Hulse, Big Love author:

It was Thubten Monlam’s job to cook for the lamas when they were at Kopan. When they went on tour he had time to study. “Lama Zopa didn’t care what I served him,” said Thubten Monlam. “He hardly ate anything at all, but if the food was really good he would eat more. He liked to put erma, Sherpa pepper, on everything, but Lama Yeshe never used erma. After his heart tests Lama was much more careful about his food. The Injis were always telling me, “Don’t serve him this, don’t serve him that!”

“Lama liked cooking very much, always chopping things very very fast and saying mantra, “Ommmmmmmmm pham pham pham,” while making a big mess for me to clean up. But he never burned anything. He always cooked for Mummy Max because he knew what she liked. I only knew thukpa, momos, bread, Tibetan tea and khapse. That’s all,” he said. Khapse is fried Tibetan bread—deep-fried yellow dough around the size, shape and texture of a clog shoe—usually made on Tibetan holidays.

“Lama Yeshe never drank Tibetan tea—he didn’t like it at all. But Lama Zopa liked it,” Thubten Monlam continued. “Lama Yeshe liked sweet Indian tea with milk and sugar served separately, like the Injis. I’d put it all on a tray and take it to him in the early morning. He also ate bread then and sometimes an egg. Sometimes he ate in his room, but most times he ate out on the patio roof with the little dogs.”

The custom of taking tea is as much a feature of Tibetan as it is of English culture and connoisseurs are sensitive to its quality. Over an afternoon cup with one of his Western monks Lama asked him what he thought of its quality. On being assured it was much better than the tea in the IMI’s storeroom, Lama replied, “I sure hope so!’ Over time Lama Yeshe developed a taste for Twinings Lapsang Souchong, which he called “Losang Chonjur” (coincidentally the name of Jan Willis’s friend from Samten Ling), or if that was not available, Earl Grey, pronounced “Er Gay.”

When Thubten Monlam was not in sight, Lama called out for tea in the old Tibetan style, with a gruff, “Eugh!” If the boy still didn’t come, Rinpoche would creep from his room, humble as a sweeper, to make Lama’s tea himself.

Besides cooking for the lamas it was Thubten Monlam’s job to clean their rooms and make up Lama Yeshe’s bed every night. “But Lama Yeshe often sat on his bed talking to students until midnight,” he explained. “Sometimes I’d fall asleep at the door waiting for him to finish and sometimes he forgot all about me. I’d try to make the bed early, when he was not sitting on it. Lama was kind to me—he gave me cookies and presents and invited me to work at Tushita in Dharamsala.

“I never saw Lama Zopa go to bed, but I did see him lie down in his robes three or four times in the middle of the day. I think he was checking dreams or something. He was always up very late at night. When I’d come into his room, he’d be drowsy and give a start, then he’d say, “Om mani padmé hum,” and go back to saying mantras.

“Lama Yeshe would go to bed really late at night and sleep late in the morning, sometimes up to nine or ten o’clock. When he’d sleep late I was afraid something had happened to him, but I would never go in and wake him. I’d just wait until he woke up by himself. Lama took a nap every afternoon because the doctor said he needed rest for his heart. Often it seemed like he was sleeping then, but he was not. He knew what was going on. He was very sensitive and woke up very easily in the afternoons.”

That was the conventional explanation for Lama’s traditional afternoon rest—his weak heart. “Rinpoche’s explanation was that Lama was a tantric master whose afternoon sleep was in fact the most profound Hayagriva dream yoga practice,” said Peter Kedge. “I didn’t like to disturb Lama from those afternoon rests, though several times I did have to wake him up. Although he did wake easily, he seemed to come back from some very far away place.

“Actually, Lama’s afternoon rests were the greatest break for me when I began touring with the lamas. There was incredible pressure when Lama was around and always so much activity, so when Rinpoche was meditating in his room and Lama was having his afternoon rest in another, it was almost like putting the kids to bed and being able to relax a little.”

By nature a night owl, one night Nick Ribush floated into Lama Yeshe’s room around 11:00 pm, confident as ever, to ask a question about some administrative matter. Lama flew at him, demanding, “Why are you coming at this time! You think I don’t need time? You’ve got no consideration!” On the other hand, when Jimi Neal went to him late one night with a list of Dharma questions, he was welcomed. “I didn’t even get the chance to produce my list,” said Jimi. “Without even seeing it Lama just went through each question I’d written down, one after the other in the same order as I’d written them. When he finished we talked about other things.”

On Lama Yeshe’s altar was a photo of a famous statue commonly known as the fasting Buddha. Tibetans generally didn’t seem to have much affinity with this particular image of the Buddha, so it was quite uncommon among them to use this image as an object of devotion on a personal altar. Lama Yeshe would sometimes describe to his students how other Tibetan monks and lamas teased him about it, saying, “What is that? Why do you have that on your altar?” Peter Kedge recalled Lama telling him he found the image very inspiring, “explaining that the Buddha’s spine was visible from the front and how that signified such incredible determination and effort.”

This specific representation is actually of Siddhartha Gautama before his enlightenment, during the six years of his life when he was engaged in ascetic practices under the guidance of a Hindu guru. He became extremely emaciated and weak until one day he concluded that asceticism was not the true path to liberation from suffering. Close to death, Siddhartha was found next to the Nairanjana River by a local girl who brought him a bowl of milk and rice, which he ate. His strength restored, Siddhartha then sat under the Bodhi tree, determined to discover the true nature of reality, which he did, thereby achieving enlightenment.

Lama Yeshe regularly went down to Kathmandu on business, or to spend time with Jampa Trinley and his family. He often invited Yangsi Rinpoche’s sister Tseyang (known as Tsen-la) a school girl at the time, to come and stay at Kopan during her school holidays. “Lama looked after her very carefully,” said Peter Kedge. “In retrospect he was preparing her to be the nun she later became. Lama paid a lot of attention to Jampa Trinley’s family. When Tsen-la’s older brother fell very ill, Lama visited him several times and showed tremendous concern.”

The Western Sangha, conspicuous in their red robes and shaven pink heads, were also seen all over town. Lay students at Kopan often gathered for picnics in the forest bordering the Bagmati River opposite Pashupatinath, an important Hindu temple, from where one could just see its famous Golden Cow statue. Entry to the temple was known to be strictly limited to Hindus. One day an older Kopan student stood outside Pashupatinath explaining this to a group of visitors when suddenly Lama Yeshe walked out of the temple holding the hand of a small Mount Everest Centre monk. Both had red Hindu tika1 marks on their foreheads.

Hayagriva: An enlightened meditational deity who is an embodiment of wrathful compassion.

The fasting Buddha: This statue of the fasting Buddha (second century a.d.) resides in the Lahore Museum in Lahore, Pakistan. It dates from the Gandharan period of South Asian art during the time that Buddhism flourished in the area we now know as Afghanistan and Pakistan. It is said that the anatomical accuracy of the statue reflects the Hellenic influence of the Greeks under Alexander the Great who conquered this area in the fourth century B.C.

Tika: Hindu devotees place a red tika mark at the center of their brows to symbolize attaining the “third eye” of enlightenment. 

Mount Everest Center

Lama with the MEC students, 1976From 1976: “Heaven is Now!” by Adele Hulse, Big Love author:

The Kopan community fell neatly into two separate worlds: the Injis and the Mount Everest Centre monks. As far as the Injis were concerned Kopan was paradise—the best thing that had ever happened to them. In contrast, some of the young monks wanted to run away. Michael Losang Yeshe was no longer the exotic little Inji monk he had once been but was now one of the crowd, speaking Tibetan like a native and looking every bit as grubby as his Sherpa classmates. He constantly used the expression “we Tibetans.”

“Once four of us ran away together,” Michael recalled. “Our punishment was to carry six tins of water each from the bottom of the hill, then pour it into the Tara pond. This meant a fifteen-minute walk each way. After just one trip we decided the only way to avoid this horrible task was to run away again. My father had married a Nepali woman, so we ran to his house in Kathmandu. But one of the monks ran back to Kopan and told Lama what we were doing. Only my stepmother was home when we got there and to our dismay she immediately drove Gelek Gyatso Rinpoche and me back to Kopan and marched us into Lama’s room. We sat down nervously. ‘You escaped! Shame on you!’ said Lama. ‘You too Losang Yeshe, have shame!’ But he gave us an easier punishment than the first one. The fourth monk had also run to his family’s home in Kathmandu, but when he returned Lama told him he had to leave Kopan. ‘The reason you escaped is because you don’t like it here, you don’t get what you need here and something is wrong for you, isn’t it? So why did you come back? You don’t want to stay, so you can go,’ Lama told him. It’s funny how Lama sent him away and not us. I ran away a couple more times and nobody ran away more than Gelek Gyatso, yet Lama accepted him back every time.”

Even Yangsi Rinpoche occasionally got into trouble. “Sometimes we had our art class in the gompa,” he recalled, “and occasionally Lama would walk through and inspect our work. One day I shouted something carelessly to another boy. Lama came straight over and scolded me, saying, ‘Aren’t you ashamed of shouting like that in class? You are a rinpoche and have to behave better than that.’ I was pretty young but I never forgot that incident. Lama was always so kind and loving to me. This was the first time he had ever scolded me. It brought down my ego.”

One little monk, Thubten Sherab, got thrown out of Kopan for being naughty. Everyone liked Thubten Sherab, who spoke Italian and Spanish and even taught English. Lama Yeshe noted Jimi Neal’s distress over the expulsion. “You shocked my method, dear?” Lama asked him. “I was and said so, but I immediately guessed what he was up to,” said Jimi. “Thubten Sherab was supposed to find some adult to come back to Kopan with him and beg for him to be allowed back. That’s exactly what happened and from then on things were fine for him.”

Most of the boys were from the Himalayan mountains and as wild as little lions. They needed Lama’s tough love. Lama Yeshe often whacked the boys with his long wooden mala. This horrified some of the Injis but he dismissed their concerns. “Look at these boys, how lucky they are! Here they spend their days doing puja and practicing Dharma. If they were in America what do you think they’d be doing?”

Lama regularly exacted discipline in the boys’ dining room. “His big thing was that we should not talk while eating,” said one boy. “If he heard noise from the dining room he’d come in, take off one of his wooden Dr. Scholl’s sandals and go down the line banging everybody on the head with it. Nobody cried because we weren’t really afraid of Lama Yeshe. Lama Pasang was much tougher on us. As for Lama Lhundrup, no one was ever afraid of him. Once we were playing around during a meal when suddenly Lama

Yeshe was there behind us. “You are shouting during dinner! You haven’t got any manners!” He went to the vegetable store, took out a big long white radish and went boom, boom, on everyone’s head. The radish broke at the fifth boy, so he got another one.”

Lama Yeshe kept a close watch on their food, making sure it was clean, not greasy and included a daily salad. At night they usually ate thukpa and chapattis. Lama didn’t want them eating Western bread and jam, which was of very low quality in Nepal. When he left to go on tour, however, standards in the kitchen tended to decline. Lama also instructed the boys in cleanliness and personal hygiene.

Sometimes the boys cleaned up the Inji dining room during courses and washed dishes, but generally the Mount Everest Centre boys had little contact with the foreign community other than at pujas. Falling asleep during puja was a common occurrence.

“We were allowed to fall asleep twice, but if it happened a third time it meant a black mark on your discipline record,” recalled Michael Losang Yeshe. “I learned how to fall asleep sitting upright with only my head drooping and one eye half open. Once I woke from a sound sleep to feel the unmistakable presence of Lama Yeshe behind me and something cold and heavy on my head. I realized it was one of the big water bowls off the altar. He poured the water all over me and held the bowl on my head while all the Injis behind me giggled.”

But life for the boys wasn’t all discipline and hardship. There were wonderful times with Lama, especially when they got out the traditional dancing masks. At Losar the boys had a marvelous time prancing around in them, clashing cymbals and blowing the long horns while Lama Yeshe threw handfuls of candies to them from the gompa roof.

Once again Michael’s father, Yorgo Cassapidis, invited all the Kopan monks to make puja at his house and in return gave each boy an offering of 100 rupees. Riches beyond their wildest dreams! Back at Kopan Lama Yeshe produced a list of every boy who had been at that puja and greeted them with an outstretched hand. Funds at Kopan were desperately short and again, such largesse was not to be wasted.

The birth of Wisdom Publications

Lama and Rinpoche, New Zealand, 1975From 1975: We Need a Foundation by Adele Hulse, Big Love author:

Nick Ribush and many of the IMI Sangha had been actively engaged in publishing activities at Kopan since even before obtaining their own Gestetner printing machine. The Wish-Fulfilling Golden Sun and the various editions of Meditation Course Notes had been published under the imprint of the International Mahayana Institute.

On 8 December 1975 Jesse Sartain, an American publisher who was a student of Geshe Ngawang Dhargyey and had been studying at the Tibetan Library in Dharamsala, visited Lama Yeshe; he suggested that the talks from the 1974 American tour be published. Nick was passionate about publishing the lamas’ work and was invited to the meeting. Lama Yeshe suggested that a book be published jointly by Jesse’s Conch Press and what he now called Publications for Wisdom Culture, Kopan’s own imprint. The Conch/Wisdom collaboration, properly printed, bound and titled Wisdom Energy, was published in 1976. It was edited by Jon Landaw and his old friend Alex Berzin. By the 1980s this publishing endeavor would transmute into Wisdom Publications with offices in Boston, Massachusetts, and would eventually become one of the world’s foremost English-language Buddhist publishing houses.

 

Statues and Images

It was typical of new students to want to buy a Buddha statue before leaving Nepal. “I went everywhere in Kathmandu and Patan and saw hundreds of statues, but none of them appealed to me because they were all mass produced,” said one young man. “Then in Boudha I saw a beautiful statue that had come from Tibet but was far too expensive for me. The only valuable thing I had with me was a really good pair of German binoculars because I was a passionate ornithologist. I put a ‘For sale’ notice up at Kopan, but there were no takers. Then a monk came to me to say that Lama Yeshe wanted to know how much I was asking for them. Of course I halved the price for him. The monk came to see me again the next day and told me Lama Yeshe wanted to know what price I really wanted for them. I told him the full amount, he gave me the money, and I was then able to buy that statue.”

That same year, Lama sent Mummy Max off to find a Tara statue. “I told him I’d go the next day,” Max recalled, “but he said, ‘No, now. You go and don’t come back without it! It’s there; you find it.’ I went all over Kathmandu on what happened to be a Nepali public holiday, so half the shops were shut. I looked in all the obvious places, went to Patan [the artistic center of Kathmandu], looked everywhere and couldn’t find anything. So I started on the back streets. I was exhausted and sure that I was never going to find this statue. But Lama knew. He knew exactly and I’m convinced he led me to it, because I didn’t have a clue. Finally, when it was getting dark I found the perfect statue in a pile in a statue maker’s warehouse. When I got back to Kopan and showed it to him, all he said was ‘Huh!’”

 

 

Mahakala, the IMI protector

Lama and Rinpoche, 1975From 1975: We Need a Foundation by Adele Hulse, Big Love author:

Lama Yeshe had already explained to Ngawang Chötak that Mahakala was both a protector deity and a yidam, a meditational deity. The concept of protectors was something new to the Westerners. Within the Buddhist pantheon, there are protectors of place, such as those the lamas made offerings to at Chenrezig in 1974. There are also Dharma protectors, some of whom are yidams, others not. Lama decided that Mahakala was the protector of the International Mahayana Institute, so he instructed the IMI monks and nuns to do the Mahakala sadhana in English every day, as well as a Mahakala group retreat.

“He didn’t tell us much about protectors,” said Yeshe Khadro. “I had the impression he didn’t really want to. He was very serious about the whole thing.” “I watched him go black before my very eyes,” said new nun Thubten Yeshe. “He turned into Mahakala, full of wrathful compassion.”

Lama Pasang thought that Lama Yeshe himself was actually a protector. When shaving Lama’s head one day he took the opportunity to search his skull for auspicious signs. Many such physical characteristics, which indicate that a person has achieved a high degree of spiritual perfection, are explained in the sutras. Suddenly Lama said, “What are you doing? Shouldn’t do!” Lama Pasang became convinced that a particular formation of three lines was just what he was looking for. “I not exactly see,” he said, “but I get good feeling that day and some hours later I not forget that good feeling.” Lama sometimes told Peter Kedge and Mummy Max that Kopan had “strong protection.”

 

“We Need a Foundation”

One day, while standing on the gompa steps with Nick Ribush, Lama Yeshe said, “I think we need an organization to hold all of this together.” After the evening discussion sessions a small group of trusted students chosen by Lama began to meet in the library above the office. This group, which came to be called the Central Committee, included Mummy Max, Dr. Nick, Jon Landaw, Yeshe Khadro, Peter Kedge, Marcel Bertels, and two others, Australian Wendy Finster and American Petey Shane. Lama outlined some definites: He wanted the words “council,” “Mahayana” and “preserve” in his organization’s name. Basically, Lama wanted the organization’s name to reflect his work; he was trying to bring not just Tibetan Buddhism, but Mahayana Dharma to the West. Lama was absolutely certain that given the chance, Buddhadharma could take hold in any culture.

While only a short distance to the north of Kopan Monastery the Cultural Revolution was bursting forth in China, Lama Yeshe joked about his own “Dharma Cultural Revolution.” Lama had been adding the words “for Wisdom Culture” to the names of his new centers, though some students were uncertain about this. As usual, however, Lama was extremely clear and felt strongly that “Wisdom Culture” defined the essence of the FPMT.

What we normally understand as the meaning of “culture” is the relative mind or spirit, the collective illusions of a certain land or people. It actually has nothing to do with the wisdom truth of Dharma. If we stretch the meaning we could say that Dharma is the “culture” of our progressively developing wisdom. I was brought up in a great culture that is two thousand years old. Now I am working with Westerners. I think the current meeting of East and West is taking place on a gross level, but could develop progressively toward a finer level of understanding. I think we must work toward a wisdom culture.

Wisdom Culture is rooted in the joy, love and utter dedication to the service of others that both lamas embodied and inspired. Wisdom Culture is a synonym for the perfect integration of the union of wisdom and method. Over time the phrase was dropped as more centers simply used the word “institute.”

Peter Kedge was now Lama’s attendant; he took the group’s ideas to him. One title that they all liked was “Yeshe Foundation,” which in its longer version of “Yeshe Foundation for Wisdom Culture” was employed for a short time. Lama Yeshe’s response was, “Ah, you people have no idea. ‘Yeshe’ is nothing. Here one minute, gone the next. Not important.

I want to preserve the Mahayana teachings. If you can’t get the name right, you don’t know what I’m doing.” He did not want some snappy name. The name he clearly preferred was “Council for the Preservation of the Mahayana Tradition.” This title would eventually be adopted as the name for the collected group of directors of all the centers and projects affiliated with Lama Yeshe and Lama Zopa Rinpoche.

The Central Committee meetings often went on until 2:00 am or even later. Yeshe Khadro would try to grab at least a couple of hours of sleep before attending morning meditations led by Tubten Pende. “One morning I decided I definitely deserved a sleep-in and so I didn’t go to the session,” she said. “Fifteen minutes later Lama sent one of the boys down to me with the message, ‘Lama wants you to write some letters.’ I jumped up bright as a button, amazed that he knew I was sleeping in. But he knew everything that was going on at Kopan.”

The mo, the use of dice for divination, was a specialty of certain lamas. Lama Zopa Rinpoche eventually became very famous for his mos, but no one ever saw Lama Yeshe use dice. His specialty was to roll his eyes back into his head, go silent, and then speak his piece. It seemed to be a kind of internal mo.

It is also possible to do a mo by counting the beads on a mala in certain ways. Lama described his own father doing this for people when Lama was a child. Only once did Lama Lhundrup see Lama Yeshe use a mala in this way: A local Nepali family came to Kopan complaining about the loss of their precious buffalo and asked Lama to find it. “He was doing something with the mala and then he say, ‘Go there, that place.’ When they went there they found their buffalo,” said Lama Lhundrup.

“I never saw Lama make an observation with either dice or a rosary,” said Peter Kedge, who toured with Lama for four years and remained close to him. “Sometimes people would ask Lama for advice and he would tell them to ask Rinpoche to make a mo. Sometimes I would ask Lama about various things related to administration or business and Lama would just seem to think for a second and then say, ‘Should be okay. Let do.’ I always felt that Lama knew exactly what the outcome would be, that it wasn’t necessary for him to go through the motions of making a divination.”

News arrived that a student who had told Lama Yeshe he was going down to the Theosophical Society in Madras, had in fact jumped off the roof there and died. “What could I do?” Lama asked Adrian. “He wanted to leave so I had to let him go.” A puja was held for him at Kopan, during which Jimi Neal had a vivid dream that Lama Yeshe, holding a dorje (vajra) with a thread tied to it, went into the bardo (the intermediate state the mind traverses between death and the next rebirth) where he connected with the boy and pulled him up. Later Lama told Jimi, “He’s okay now.” Naturally, many people spoke of this death but Lama Yeshe insisted it was not a suicide. He did not explain further.

The meditation course ended with the conferring of refuge and lay vows and a Vajrasattva empowerment, taken by twenty people. Almost immediately one participant decided he didn’t want to hear any more and left Kopan. Empowerments were considered to be serious things. It was felt that if you didn’t take this commitment seriously the initiating lama’s energies were weakened. Ablaze with anxious devotion, one of the new nuns ran to Lama Yeshe about the departing student, saying, “Lama, Lama, he’s going to hell! He took the initiation and now he’s not going to do the retreat!” “Dear,” said Lama, “if he is not going to do the practice then we are not communicating. Initiation is communication. If there is no communication, there is no initiation and therefore there’s no downfall. So, what’s the problem?”

 

 

 

The 8th Kopan Meditation Course

Group photo, Kopan, 1975From 1975: We Need a Foundation by Adele Hulse, Big Love author:

Two hundred people turned up for the eighth course, many of them veterans of several courses already. The more long-term students were increasingly serious about learning to control their minds and stop harming others. Marcel was appointed as the course leader and Jon Landaw was requested to conduct the discussions. “Lama didn’t give me any particular instructions,” said Jon. “He just threw me in there.” Yeshe Khadro, Thubten Pemo, Sangye Khadro, and John Feuille all returned to Kopan from a three-month Manjushri retreat at Lawudo to attend the meditation course.

Adrian Feldmann came to the course from his one-room cabin in the Australian bush where he had been doing solitary retreat. During his retreat he had not seen a single person. “I’d followed Lama Yeshe’s advice and started writing him letters when questions arose, but I never finished one of them. As soon as I started writing the answers just came to me. After the retreat I wrote to Lama and asked when I could become a monk. He told me to come to the course.”

Among the new students attending this course was John Cayton, an American college student. He was one of a group of undergraduates from The Evergreen State College in Washington State, USA, who had come to Nepal to engage in individual research. Most people called him Karuna; he had been given that name by a Hindu guru a few years previously. On his first night at Kopan he dreamed of a lama bowing and smiling at him in greeting. “The next morning I was going to breakfast and I saw this lama walking by, bowing to everyone and smiling. It was Lama Yeshe; he was the one I had seen in my dream. I’d never even seen a photo of him before,” said Karuna.

Andy Weber, who was studying thangka painting in Boudhanath, had met Lama Yeshe in Bodhgaya in 1974. This was his first Kopan course. “I didn’t like the first day—those pretentious Americans with their backpacks and superdown gear and polite palaver. Everyone looked so rich and neat,” Andy remembered. “It was like being at college in the West. The day before the course started I was standing beside the gompa looking down into the valley and wondering whether to stay. I turned around and there was Lama Yeshe’s beaming face at the window. He just nodded to me, but I felt a thud of blessed energy. I knew then that I had to stay. But I thought Marcel was a pain in the neck. Sometimes I just had to go down to Boudha for a chillum.

“I got very depressed during Lama Zopa Rinpoche’s teachings. The only reason I stayed was because Lama Yeshe occasionally dropped in and gave one of his blissful talks, and because he sometimes called me to his room for a chat. His was the message we all wanted to hear. However, we also knew that we first had to walk the path Lama Zopa Rinpoche was pointing out, the same path Lama Yeshe had followed.”

Five friends from the seventh course had spent the year together in Dharamsala and had then returned to Kopan for more. “We were a wild bunch,” said Jimi Neal. Wildest of all was an intense young Italian, Stefano Piovella. “A lot of people at Kopan were very straight. They didn’t like Stefano because he was such a hippie,” said Jimi. “He spent most of the course crashed out in the front row looking totally out of it. Then every now and then he would jump up with the most amazingly profound or poignant questions. He just adored Lama Zopa Rinpoche. He told me that he was amazed at Lama Yeshe’s deep understanding of Italian psychology and culture after he had spent only two weeks in Italy.”

Some months later the somewhat unpredictable but charismatic Stefano was ordained by His Holiness the Karmapa. “Ha ha ha! You! A monk!” everybody exclaimed. “I’m glad you did it,” said Lama. “You’ll last two months.” And he did—to the day. Stefano later took ordination again, and disrobed again.

Jimi Neal was present on the day a student arrived at Kopan on a huge BMW motorbike. “Lama Yeshe might have seen one before but he certainly hadn’t ridden one,” said Jimi. “He got on it, put his hands and feet in the right places, and hunkered down as though the wind was tearing at his face. Marcel Marceau had nothing on him—he was a magnificent actor and a superb mimic.”

One person who didn’t show up for the course was the lamas’ Lake Arrowhead driver Teresa Knowlton, a devout and cheerful young girl from Seattle. Teresa had planned to take ordination and was expected to arrive at Kopan with gardening tools and a typewriter. Time magazine was one of the very few Western publications regularly available in Nepal and Lama Yeshe usually had the latest copy. One day he pointed to a paragraph about an Indian-Vietnamese man, Charles Sobhraj, who had murdered a number of young travelers and stolen their cash and passports, apparently for the sheer excitement of it. Among his victims, found drowned on a beach in Thailand, was Teresa Knowlton. “She wanted to practice Dharma,” said Lama, “but she never reached here.” The message was clear—anything can happen, so use your time well.

More new monks and nuns

Adrian Feldmann was preparing to take robes. His girlfriend was at Kopan and tried to get the lad to spend one last romantic weekend with her at the lovely lakeside town of Pokhara. “I had to check up very deeply,” said Adrian. “I took my girlfriend up to the astrologer’s hill and pointed to the North Star. ‘See that star?’ I said. ‘It never moves and the whole universe moves around it. It is the same as my determination to be a monk.’ She cried a bit and we had one last kiss and cuddle.”

Most of those seeking ordination had already received “Dharma names,” but Adrian hadn’t. He hadn’t even taken the five lay vows that were often given together with refuge. Lama Yeshe gave these vows to Adrian and to Scott Brusso, who also hadn’t yet received all five vows. Then Lama closed his eyes for a moment and gave Adrian the name Thubten Gyatso.

Elisabeth Drukier was on the way to becoming Lama’s first French nun. “I’m not sure about French people,” Lama told her, “I don’t know so many.” George Churinoff went to see Lama Zopa Rinpoche about whether to become ordained. “He told me, ‘For you it would be good.’ So that was that. I thought that becoming a monk was really the only way I could practice Dharma and I had no relationship responsibilities,” said George.

These three—Adrian, Elisabeth, and George—together with several more of Kopan’s Western students, were slated to be ordained by in Dharamsala early in 1976.

In the meantime, however, Lama Yeshe unexpectedly announced on November 17 that a preliminary rabjung ceremony would take place the very next day. This was the third group of Lama Yeshe’s students to request getsul ordination and Lama wanted to ensure that their monastic future was well planned. By receiving the eight barma rabjung vows early they would have some experience of having lived together as Sangha before committing themselves to the thirty-six getsul vows. On that day, George Churinoff, Adrian Feldmann, Elisabeth Drukier, Electric Roger, Karin Valham, Roger Wheeler, Peter Kedge, Scott Brusso, Suzi Albright, and Margaret McAndrew received barma rabjung ordination together. After the ceremony Lama told them, “From now on I am your girlfriend, your boyfriend, your mummy, your daddy, your teacher and your best friend. You have no worries. Now you have a big party!”

“We went down to the Sangha gompa, which was the big room in the old house,” said Adrian. “There was a big table of food and Lama insisted that we sing and dance and play music, all of which are alien practices for ordained people. So we got out the few cassette tapes that we still had, such as the Rolling Stones and Bob Dylan, and drank lemonade and ate biscuits. We didn’t actually sing and dance and Lama didn’t come to the party.”

Lama Yeshe gave several talks to the Sangha about how to live together as a community. He also had them give Dharma talks to each other in the evenings, with question-and-answer sessions, in this way training his monks and nuns to eventually be able to teach in the West.

 

Miracle at Mullumbimby, Australia

Lama Yeshe on the hill, 1975From 1975: We Need a Foundation by Adele Hulse, Big Love author:

That same day, 24 October 1975, is engraved forever in the minds of Australian students Gloria and Bill Searle. At the fourth Kopan course Lama Yeshe had paid considerable attention to the Searles’ small son, Adam, and had warned them at the time that the child was reckless.

Gloria and Bill lived on a small farm at Mullumbimby in New South Wales, Australia, prime hippie country. On that day in October 1975 Adam, then six years old, was playing with his little friend, Jason, at the edge of a dam on the property. Bill was working in the herb garden just below it.

“It was about two o’clock in the afternoon,” recalled Bill Searle. “Adam and Jason were chasing dragonflies around the dam and nagging me to take them to the beach. Suddenly I heard Jason yell, ‘Come back, Adam!’ Something in the tone of his voice made me climb up there. Jason was standing knee deep in this thick brown water pointing to a flat empty space. I remember thinking very strongly that I just didn’t want to acknowledge this. I just wanted to walk away, pretend it wasn’t happening. But I stripped off and jumped in. I swam up and down that dam for I don’t know how long. Twice I had to crawl out and vomit up all the filthy brown water I’d swallowed. Little Jason just stood there, mute.

“Then I found Adam, face down in the mud under ten feet of icy cold water. I got hold of him but his little body slipped out of my grasp before I got to the surface. To make things worse, I had to get out and vomit again, because I was full of water. I went back in and got him and he was entirely dead. I wasn’t even going to attempt resuscitation.

“Then I had a vision of Lama Yeshe. I can’t describe it other than to say he was there, standing on the rise on the other side of the dam. The vision was absolutely clear and seemed completely external—outside of me. He appeared to be a little bigger than normal size but not huge. He was in robes and bathed in this golden light and was looking directly at me. It was like a reality check, because everything happening right then was pretty unreal. The message I got from him was that there was something I could do about it, that I was not unempowered.

“I immediately started doing CPR, which I’d recently learned on a building site first-aid course. By now Gloria knew what was happening and had raced off to find a telephone. We didn’t have one then. Completely out of the blue a friend arrived and took over doing mouth-to-mouth. My breathing had become pretty irregular, but I was able to keep up doing the heart massage. I felt Adam’s heart give a kick and realized he might come back. When the ambulance came we took him to a hospital forty minutes away. We had oxygen on him by this time and I just kept up working away at his heart. A doctor friend of ours happened to be on duty in the emergency room. He took us aside and said, ‘You should hope he does not live because he’s full of very dirty water, has a huge brain edema and badly damaged lungs.’ We estimated that he’d been under the water for ten minutes.”

“Everyone started praying for him,” recounted Gloria Searle. “Every church in Mullumbimby held a service for him. Two days later he was still in a coma and everyone was sure he would die. Anila Ann was visiting the town at the time and invited us to a puja they were having for Adam, but we couldn’t go. We were just too upset.

“The next day Adam woke up, pulled out all the equipment he was hooked up to and sat up. Our doctor friend told us he was completely clean and had only very slight brain damage, which might show up during adolescence. The only sign of it we ever noticed was his poor ball-handling skills. He grew up to be a healthy man and became an environmental lawyer.

“The really surprising thing about the vision of Lama was that it happened to Bill, not to me. He wasn’t a Dharma student to the same extent as I was. He hadn’t even thought about Lama Yeshe for a long time prior to that day. I heard later about a drowning incident in America and learned that the body just shuts down at certain temperatures, allowing for just enough blood to reach the brain to keep it ticking. Our dam water was pretty cold at the bottom, so I think that was it.”

Les Bayards, Switzerland

1975 Geshe Rabten in SwitzerlandFrom 1975: We Need a Foundation by Adele Hulse, Big Love author:

On September 24, three days after the seminar at Royal Holloway in Surrey, England, the lamas and Nick flew from London to Geneva. Chris and Barbara Vautier, two of the organizers of the upcoming two-week course, met them at the airport and drove them to the picture-postcard village of Les Bayards in the Jura, a canton in northwest Switzerland. The lamas had been invited to Switzerland by the Vautiers and Jamie and Isabelle Johnston. The Vautiers had rented Les Places, a beautiful spic-and-span house, for the lamas in the countryside about twenty minutes from Les Bayards.

Chris and Barbara, who had attended the third Kopan course in 1972, were interested in establishing a center in Switzerland, which already had a strong Tibetan community. Geshe Rabten, attended by Gonsar Rinpoche, had arrived there in 1974 to take up a three-year post as abbot of the Tibet Institute in Rikon, Switzerland. In view of this Lama Yeshe told Peter Kedge that he could not possibly consider opening a center in Switzerland, as that would have been arrogant and extremely disrespectful to Geshe Rabten.

The day after they arrived in Switzerland the lamas went to visit Geshe Rabten at the Tibet Institute, and then all together they went to visit Kyabjé Trijang Rinpoche who was staying close by. During this visit, Lama Yeshe asked Trijang Rinpoche to record some advice for the 120 students at Les Bayards on a cassette tape.

Åge Delbanco, who had not seen the lamas for two years, came to cook for them. “I drove them back and forth to the teachings,” he said. “Whenever we arrived for the teachings or left afterward, students would run out to surround the car. Bent over in devotion they all rushed to be the one to open the car door. Once Lama Yeshe exclaimed, ‘Ho! This guru business!’ as if to say, ‘Why can’t they just relax and be natural?’ Lama was so sweet to me then, but he treated Lama Zopa like he was a little boy. There was a lot of, ‘What are you doing! Do this! Do that!’”

Kopan students from all over Europe were thrilled to meet each other again. “For many of us it was the first time we had seen the lamas and each other for years and it presaged great things to come. After this, new centers began opening all over the continent,” said Paula de Wys. In charge of the kitchen during the course was Patricia Zenn Calaman, who would later come to be known as Bhikshuni Professor Karma Lekshe Tsomo and would become one of the founders of Sakyadita, the International Association of Buddhist Women.

The students took the eight Mahayana precepts every morning during the second week of the course. This was challenging, so Lama Yeshe came along to give everyone courage:

Good morning. We are here to engage in this exercise, to concentrate on our own beliefs. Perhaps I will explain a little why we do this.

It is very simple. We have tremendous energy from our previous experiences, both physical and mental. We are influenced too much by this uncontrolled energy. So when we try to engage in actions that put our energy in the right direction, we need to relieve that garbage energy that has been uncontrollably occupying our minds for so long. In order to actualize the Hinayana path, the Paramitayana path, or even the Tantrayana path, it is necessary to eliminate that uncontrolled negative energy that we are all too familiar with.

But we cannot do this merely intellectually. This is like feeling hungry but then denying that you have a stomach! You understand? You cannot just say, “I want to stop,” (clap) and expect it to happen. You have to understand that your mind is like a baby. You have to concentrate this positive energy into your own movement reality, your own coming and going, so that the mind automatically integrates one-pointedly and stops the mundane worldly thoughts.

Lama always said he never rehearsed his talks and never knew what he was going to say until he sat on the throne.

As the attendant Nick was in charge of all the mundane matters, such as seeing that everything ran to schedule, especially lunch. On the days when everyone took precepts, lunch was the only meal of the day and it was supposed to be over by noon. Lama often lectured in the morning on those days, and his lectures often went overtime. With five minutes to spare, Nick would discreetly remind Lama of the time. Twenty minutes later he often had to do so again, because Lama had taken no notice. One day, after Nick’s third interruption, Lama Yeshe rounded on him and said, “In Tibet when someone is being a nuisance, we do this to them!” He made a squishing gesture with his thumb. Nick stayed quiet. “When the lecture was finally over I followed Lama down the stairs,” said Nick. “My mind was just about to boil over when Lama turned, gave me a look full of real fear for my future lives and said, ‘Don’t say a thing!’ Then he walked off.” Displaying anger toward one’s guru creates very bad karma.

As promised, Judy Weitzner turned up to discuss Lama’s plans for a Tibetan organization. Later, she remembered talking with Lama about the project. “At one point I said, ‘Why stop at “International Society” for Tibetan Reality? Why not intergalactic?’ Lama thought that was a great idea. He also said he wanted to establish universities in Tibet, where scholars from all over the world could come and teach Dharma to the Tibetans. They were the ones who were missing out now,” said Judy.

Adele Hulse also attended the Swiss course. “I followed the tour down to Les Bayards and was the only other Australian there besides Nick,” recalled Adele. “Every evening there were discussions conducted in several language groups. I would walk around from group to group, not quite belonging. I saw that the French all spoke at once, the Germans made lists of words, the English were super polite and said nothing, and the Italians were extremely emotional. I thought it very funny.

“Nick invited me to come over to the lamas’ house and clean up in readiness for a short visit from Geshe Rabten. Naturally, I was thrilled. The house had been squeaky Swiss clean before the lamas moved in, but now it was untidy and the kitchen was a mess. There were splotches and burn marks on practically every surface.

“The lamas had just finished cooking a mountain of momos for Geshe Rabten and I was washing up, my hands in the sink. I didn’t notice Lama Yeshe come up behind me until I suddenly felt this massive thump, square in the middle of my back. I was stunned. It was obviously a precise strike and delivered in neither fun nor anger. In my straightforward Australian way I turned to look at him. His eyes were rolled right back in his head, his hands folded and he just kept saying, ‘Thank you, dear, thank you, dear.’ I didn’t understand at all and just went on with the dishes.

“That day Lama asked me, ‘Why do you stay in London for so long, such a dirty place? Why don’t you go back to Australia? A clean place and such good food. See your mummy.’ Soon afterward I left Switzerland knowing that my time on the road was up.”

Two days before the end of the course Lama Yeshe gave a public talk at nearby Chaux-de-Fonds. On the last day of the course Geshe Rabten gave a talk and Zopa Rinpoche gave a Tara initiation. Lama Yeshe also gave a Chenrezig initiation and played Kyabjé Trijang Rinpoche’s recorded advice to the students, which was translated by the American monk, Alan Wallace.

The Indiana Course

Geshe Sopa and Lama, 1975From 1975: We Need a Foundation by Adele Hulse, Big Love author:

From California the lamas returned to Louie-Bob Wood’s Bodhicitta Center in Indiana, Max and Wongmo accompanying them. They were scheduled to give a two-week course there starting on July 24. Louie-Bob had rented a venue this time and once again many of those attending were older people—mostly devout Christians. Definitely not hippies. In addition to the local attendees, however, there were also about twenty people in attendance who had already received teachings from the lamas. While in California, Lama Zopa Rinpoche had dictated the Yoga Meditation of Chenrezig Compassionate Wisdom to Wongmo, who had then arranged to have it printed in time for a Chenrezig initiation that Lama gave to eighty-five people at the end of the course. Rinpoche had signed the booklet “Zopa—Lama in name only.”

During the question-and-answer time a woman asked Lama if Buddha’s ultimate nature was the same as God. Lama paused in deep contemplation for a long minute before clearly replying, “Yes.” As most of those attending this course were Christians, Lama spoke often about Jesus and his qualities and even had them visualizing Jesus instead of Buddha. Two hundred people attended Lama Yeshe’s public talk at the Brown County Art Gallery on the second night of the course. At the end of the course Lama gave refuge to forty people and lay vows to thirty.

Lama told all the people who wanted to do further study to visit Geshe Sopa in Madison, Wisconsin. Several of them went directly there and became dedicated students of Lama’s long-time teacher.

Max Mathews stayed on the tour for the duration of her school holiday leave. In Nashville, Indiana, she spent time working on an innovative education project that Lama had discussed with her. Lama had told her that he believed Buddhism could be taught all around the world without using any Buddhist terms at all, and in such a way that children could learn that life is impermanent, all things are interrelated, and the path to life’s fulfillment involves exercising compassion and wisdom and applying appropriate methods. Max thought that the first thing to do was to prepare texts in order to be able to train teachers. She wrote out a program, developed concepts, and had long discussions with Lama. News of her work elicited offers from two American universities to complete a Ph.D. in educational research, but she did not accept. When the lamas left for Wisconsin, Max returned to Nepal and her job at Lincoln School. She was still the only source of support for more than fifty young Mount Everest Centre monks.

 

In Wisconsin with Geshe Sopa

Several days into the Indiana course, on July 29, because of difficulties with his health due to the Indiana summer heat, Lama Yeshe cancelled the upcoming course in New York that had been organized by Roger Jackson and Pam Percy with help from Nicole Couture. “He was obviously not well,” said Pam. “He paused every now and then as some pain passed through him, but he was more concerned about us. He wouldn’t let us leave until we were quite clear of his reasons for cancelling the New York course. He kept asking us to take care of each other.”

The upside of this was that it gave the lamas more time to spend with their precious teacher, Geshe Sopa. They traveled to Madison, Wisconsin, directly from Indiana, spending the next month there receiving teachings from Geshe Sopa on the The Great Treatise on the Stages of the Path to Enlightenment (Lam-rim Chenmo). It was also a time for Lama Yeshe to take a break from his grueling schedule and escape from the heat that oppressed him so. Because Geshe Sopa’s house was right next to the lake, it was more comfortable in summer than much of the rest of the area.

Khamlung Rinpoche, whose house was just down the road from Geshe Sopa’s, hadn’t seen Thubten Yeshe since that dreadful day at Sera in March 1959. Here in the United States the Tibetans spent long pleasant evenings dining together, Lama Yeshe doing some of the cooking. Geshe Sopa was teachings only one weekly class at the time so he had free time to spend with his old student. Meanwhile, Nick embarked on series of long bus and plane rides to Chicago, Boston, Toronto, and Gainesville, Florida, giving talks on Buddhism to raise funds for the IMI before returning to Madison.

* * *

Allyn Roberts was a psychologist and the director of one of Wisconsin’s first private clinics. In 1972 his friend, Geshe Sopa, had asked him to deliver a message to Lama Yeshe while he was traveling in India. He had been warmly welcomed by Lama and the two had enjoyed many enthusiastic conversations about the overlap of Buddhism and Western psychology in relieving suffering. They had agreed that each discipline needed to learn from and be complemented by the other. Lama asked Allyn to send him some suitable books written by Western psychologists, which he had done. Lama even suggested that they swap roles for a few months. These conversations had taken place even before the term “transpersonal psychology” entered the common vernacular and at a time when Western psychological traditions rarely focused on spiritual dimensions in their pursuit of wholeness.

Allyn had heard that after spending time at Kopan many young drug addicts had been able to kick their addiction, while in contrast, clinical approaches were having only limited success. He wanted to know how they did it. “That’s easy,” Lama Yeshe had told him. “They are hungry for nourishing food. I feed them and then it is easier for them to forgo the non-nourishing food.”

Now that Lama was visiting Madison, Geshe Sopa called Allyn saying that Lama wanted to come and see him. “Geshe-la wanted Lama to see the silo that was attached to my home, on top of which I had built a glass-walled viewing room,” Allyn recalled. “Lama arrived and darted up the inner staircase leading to the room. Geshe-la was anxious because he knew of Lama’s heart condition. Halfway up he looked back at Geshe-la and me in a laughing and mischievous way. ‘I’m fine!’ Lama said. We followed at a much less vigorous pace. In the viewing room Lama was absolutely overjoyed. He said, ‘This gives me an idea. We should build a statue of the Buddha like this, with an inner staircase surrounded by Buddhist and spiritual art objects.’ He said that our energy and spirits were raised in the process of climbing up and that most people needed some kind of physical experience. People would take with them memories and images that would assist their spiritual growth.”

Some of Lama Yeshe’s students had written to Geshe Sopa in hopes that he could persuade Lama to undergo the heart valve replacement recommended by several cardiologists. They had also written to Kyabjé Trijang Rinpoche about it. However, Trijang Rinpoche told Lama that his divinations had advised against having any operation at all. Nevertheless Lama, now forty years old, went back to the university hospital for more tests.

While he was at the hospital, a vending machine there attracted his attention. “So beautiful. Just like karma. You select something, put a coin in, and the result appears,” he said.

The upshot of this visit was that Lama agreed to be admitted for two days to have a cardiac catheterization. It was noted in the hospital documents that his date of birth (invented by Mummy Max for Lama’s travel documents) was 21 May 1935 and that he was 5′ 3″ tall and weighed 155 pounds. The procedure was performed under a local anesthetic on 10 September 1975. “They took me to that chopping place and put me on a chopping table. They showed me on TV; I could watch like a movie!” said Lama afterward. He had not been at all nervous and had cheerfully joked all the way through the procedure. The doctors were impressed.

Before leaving Geshe Sopa’s house for the hospital Lama Yeshe had given his teacher an envelope containing some money and his will. “It seemed he had already decided that it didn’t matter if he died during the operation. Of course, once you decide that, there is no problem,” said Geshe Sopa.

Dr. Nick attended the post-examination medical conference. “The doctors couldn’t understand how Lama could travel and be so active with his heart in such poor condition. One of them pointed out that he was a Buddhist monk and probably led a very sedentary life, so I was prompted to tell them how just last year he had scooted up the hill at Lawudo, which is at 14,000 feet. I’m not sure they believed me, however. A monk wasn’t going to have the same credibility as a doctor. And a doctor-monk, well… Whenever any of us students asked Lama how he coped with his heart, he always said it was the power of mantras. I didn’t tell them that.”

Geshe Sopa also attended this conference. “The doctor was very frank. He insisted that it was better to do the operation now; otherwise, if we were to wait then [his heart] would deteriorate and it could be very dangerous. Right then it was not so dangerous. I pushed him to say how long he thought that Lama could live without an operation. He said eight years,” said Geshe Sopa. But later, Lama repeated Trijang Rinpoche’s advice not to have the surgery. “If we followed the doctors, then I would already be dead; several doctors said that I should be dead. I don’t want to do that operation now. Maybe later I can come back. I’ve stayed alive a lot longer than anyone thought I could and I have so much to do. I can’t afford the recovery time that an operation would take.”

Lama’s friend Chombey also recalled discussing the matter with him. “Lama said Trijang Rinpoche told him not to have it, because it wouldn’t make any big difference. The operation would not prolong his life and not having it would not shorten his life either. But Trijang Rinpoche also made a promise to Lama. He told him, ‘As long as I live, you will be taken care of. Nothing will happen to you. I can’t do much in spreading the Dharma around and you are doing all that work. I’ll look after you while I live.’ That’s what he told Lama,” said Chombey.

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