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Right livelihood

Lama meditating, Lake Arrowhead, 1975From  1977: The more meditation, the more happy! by Adele Hulse, Big Love author:

That April Susanna Parodi was ordained in Dharamsala by Ling Rinpoche and Lama Zopa Rinpoche. Cherry Greene was ordained as Thubten Chodron in the same ceremony. She later wrote many books on meditation and became a well-known Dharma teacher, establishing Sravasti Abbey, a monastic community in rural Washington State, USA.

“Lama Yeshe had asked Lama Pasang to get robes for me,” Susanna recalled, “but the ones he got were huge and made of polyester. The fabric was so shiny they called me the ‘nightclub nun.’ It was a very funny day. During the ritual, there was a part where I had to kneel down. But when they told me it was time to stand up, I couldn’t because I was still recovering from drugs and in a lot of pain. Ling Rinpoche kindly said it was okay for me to remain down, but I thought this so inauspicious I somehow managed to make it to my feet. So there I was, standing there in my huge shiny robes. Everyone just cracked up laughing because I looked so funny. They were laughing so hard they were crying!

“Then Ling Rinpoche said, ‘Stop. We aren’t going to give her the name chosen here. We’ll give her a special name, Thubten Chökyi,’ [which can be loosely interpreted to mean happiness in the Dharma.] So I became the happy nun.”

On May 12 Lama Yeshe wrote to Susanna from Madison:

Dear my daughter Susanna.

Congratulations for your right livelihood. I know too you are fortunated. Continue you study Dharma and dedicate your life, eventually gain enlightenment for all mother sentient beings. You are the first lady on this earth to become Italian Mahayana Buddhist nun. I pray for successful your destination.


Lama Yeshe

The Superstitious Mind

Lama Yeshe on the beach, 1975From  1977: The more meditation, the more happy! by Adele Hulse, Big Love author:

By 10 April 1977 Lama Yeshe and Peter were back in Madison, Wisconsin. Once again, Lama stayed in Geshe Sopa’s Lake Mendota Drive home. Jon Landaw and Petey Shane rented a house just down the road.

While Jon Landaw assisted Lama Yeshe in preparing the teachings he was to give, Petey Shane helped with secretarial work and housekeeping. “Lama wrote to one student about the way a woman’s mind worked,” said Petey. “He said a woman could think through something, make up her mind, think it through again, and change her mind faster than a man could think it through once.”

Lama Yeshe’s health continued to be a concern to those around him. “There were so many demands made on his time and the strain showed,” Petey continued. “He still had a rest after lunch, but not for as long as he was supposed to. He had this huge paper package full of herbs, which had to be boiled down into a decoction. Sometimes he drank it and sometimes he didn’t. There was also a lot of Tibetan medicine he was awful about taking. He called me Mummy and joked, ‘Oh, you got yourself this baby who won’t behave!’ We had a lot of fun in the kitchen together, especially when he got in there and made momos, splattering the walls with dough.”

Even though it was not yet summer, Madison was not an ideal place for Lama Yeshe. The humidity caused him to struggle for breath, not that this seemed to curtail his activities. One person he visited frequently was Kalleen, the cheesecake maker, and her husband. They invited him to parties in their home and she fondly recalled watching him introduce himself to their houseplants, stroking them and saying a few words to each one. Despite his breathing difficulties he played frisbee enthusiastically in the front yard, much to the delight of the neighbors. One night they put up a sheet in the back yard and showed slides of Kirlian photography in which Lama had become very interested.

Lama Yeshe also went to see the movie Brother Sun, Sister Moon, on the life of St. Francis of Assisi. He said it was the best religious movie he had ever seen, adding that he hadn’t really cared for Conrad Rooks’s Siddhartha.

Jon Landaw accompanied Lama Yeshe to the English classes he attended regularly on the other side of Madison. Naturally, Lama wanted to drive. “I was always telling him to slow down, slow down,” Jon explained. “‘But they take advantage when I slow down!’ Lama replied. He was fearless in everything and that included driving. Saying mantras while sitting beside him was the only way to keep sane. We’d park in this underground car park after making a right turn from a fairly busy street. After a lot of practice he had that maneuver down pretty well and did it at the same speed every day. Then one day he whipped into the car park without slowing down at all. I caught my breath and he said, ‘Did I get you hot?’ That was his key phrase that summer, ‘Did I get you hot?’ So I told him, ‘Yes, Lama, you got me hot.’

“Another time Lama drove Petey and me out of Madison for a picnic. By the time we were ready to come back it was getting late and as expected, he also wanted to drive on the return trip. But I was worried that he was too tired so I asked him for the keys. Lama refused and I actually wrestled him for them. Wrestling with one’s lama was not something most people would ever think of doing, but Lama Yeshe was so comfortable to be with that I had no hesitation doing whatever I could to get the keys out of his possession. I have to admit, however, that I was not successful.”

When Geshe Sopa returned from Albuquerque, Lama Yeshe and Peter prepared to leave for California. On the day of their departure, they were running late as usual and Jon Landaw rushed them to the airport. “I’m basically a cautious, law-abiding kind of a guy and certainly no risk-taker as a driver. But on that day I pulled out all the stops and drove them to the airport as fast as I could, even driving off the road at one point to pass another driver. Lama was very pleased that I allowed my wild side to come out and whistled his approval.”

Lama planned to stay there for six weeks and teach another of Maitreya’s five treatises, Discriminating between the Relative and the Ultimate (Skt. Dharma-dharmata-vibhaga-karika, Tib. Chö dang chönyi nam che). Jon Landaw worked with Lama Yeshe to create a simple English translation of this relatively short work.

On the first day of his commentary, Lama Yeshe explained:

Geshe Sopa and Lama, 1975The entire subject matter of this work is included within these two terms dharma and dharmata: relative and absolute phenomena. In this work the term dharma also means samsaric phenomena while dharmata signifies the phenomena of liberation, or nirvana. So what exactly is dharma or samsaric phenomena? It is the dualistic mind. This is the superstitious mind that perceives the dualistic vision. As such, it is the cause of the uncontrolled, agitated life. And from this cause of the agitated life comes uncontrollable sickness, uncontrollable death, uncontrollable rebirth and all other forms of uncontrollable confusion. All these samsaric phenomena come from one root: the dualistic mind perceiving the dualistic vision, what we may call nam-tog, or superstition. This is something we have to understand.

      This work by Maitreya explains that the dualistic mind is always involved in some form of competition. This is a major characteristic of modern life, isn’t it? When we consider the Western way of life, and particularly American culture, everywhere we look we see competition; there is always some kind of contest going on. Take a simple example: the man next door buys himself an expensive car and, as soon as we see it, jealousy begins to arise in our mind. “He has such a good car, so big and comfortable. Where does that leave me? I’ll have to do something about that. I’ll get myself an even bigger car….” As far as material progress is concerned, such a competitive spirit is good, but as far as our mind is concerned, it is not good at all. Why not? Because it only makes us more agitated and conflicted; this is the symptom of the dualistic mind. We call it dualistic because as soon as one thing appears to our mind we look around for something else to compare it with. That shows our dissatisfaction, the way in which we are always searching for something newer, something better, something else. This is the way our dualistic mind is; this is how it works.

    This syndrome of the dualistic mind is true for everyone. It doesn’t matter whether you are a religious person or a non-religious person, Buddha’s teaching describes the way things are. This is not a religious trip we are talking about; it is not Buddha’s trip or some lama’s trip. Whether you are religious or non-religious, intelligent or dull, as long as you have a dualistic mind conflict is always arising. Sometimes it appears on a gross, emotional level; sometimes it works on a subtle, unconscious level. But as long as there is the dualistic mind, there is some form of contradiction and conflict going on.

      The dualistic mind is functioning within you right now, and if you just take a look it is easy to understand and experience how this mind is playing games with your life, games that only lead to misery. You can see just how this mind leads to restlessness, frustration, and dissatisfaction. And when you release that dualistic mind, you are a Buddha, or whatever you want to call that state of complete freedom. At that point you can call yourself a liberated lady or a liberated gentleman if you want to; it doesn’t matter. In short, the cessation of the dualistic mind is liberation, the experience of ultimate reality.

What would Lama do? Transcending Ordinary View

Lama teaching, Yucca Valley, 1977From  1977: The more meditation, the more happy! by Adele Hulse, Big Love author:

The second half of the month in Yucca Valley was devoted to a retreat focusing on the buddha Vajrapani,[1] for which 140 people were enrolled. Lama Yeshe delayed the initiation by one day for the sake of a student who was late.

“A qualified tantric guru should know the state of all his disciples’ minds twenty-four hours a day. If he doesn’t, he is not qualified,” he told them. With typical modesty he declared himself unqualified, but repeated that a guru must be able to determine whether a student is capable of keeping the tantric vows. He explained that these could be withheld for certain people during the ceremony. It was very important to Lama Yeshe to do everything possible to maintain the strength and purity of the tantric lineages he was so generously transmitting to his students.

There was always a little competition among the students when it came to performing some personal service for Lama Yeshe, right down to who would have the honor of bringing him the freshly squeezed juice he liked to sip during teachings. He often visited the kitchen to chat with the Sangha, who washed the dishes. Soon it became clear he was spending extra time with Chuck Thomas. “Jon Landaw and I spent quite a bit of time with him privately, just hanging out,” said Chuck. “At the time I didn’t realize how lucky I was and so I mainly wasted the opportunity. One time Lama was laughing so much he just leaned over and threw up into the garbage pail. We realized Lama’s body was barely sustaining him. He told us quite plainly that he kept himself alive with his own psychic powers.”

Lama Yeshe, an avid TV watcher, was intrigued by advertisements and knew the advertising industry didn’t bother with an idea unless it was going to work for them. He saw how advertisers used enthusiasm and exaggeration to sell their products, and he would sometimes half-jokingly inject the same qualities into his Dharma talks: “This emptiness, shunyata, is the best one! It is pantastic! Wow!” He also knew that slang was powerful. The expressions “freak out” (which Lama pronounced “preak out”) and “uptight” were his favorites when referring to students who neglected themselves and “beat themselves up.”

He had no patience with the cry, “I’m so bad!” He pointed out that self-pity was not the same as humility. He wanted his students to develop faith in their inner guru, their own potential for enlightenment. He saw guilt and self-disparagement as a Western disease of the spirit.

Peter Kedge later reflected on his experience with the lamas. “After being around Lama for some time, which was a huge luxury, one starts to think, ‘What would Lama do? How would he handle this?’ when dealing with people in daily life situations. And his guidance would be there, because one could refer back to his indomitable example. Lama often repeated that human beings’ biggest problem is low self-image. It was from that point that Lama taught human potential in a very structured way.

“The way Rinpoche’s lam-rim teachings at Kopan unfolded into the various initiations—Chenrezig, Tara, Vajrapani, Manjushri, Vajrasattva and the Vajrasattva retreat—was like a huge doorway for everyone to pass through. There was a method in this unfolding. The seed-syllable meditation was really an extract from the Six Yogas of Naropa. It was Lama’s method to take the essence of the Buddha’s teachings and present it without any cultural or other form of packaging. It was pure essence taught in the manner, language and context that people—especially we young people in those days—were really able to understand.

“Several times it occurred to me that Lama Yeshe was Lama Tsongkhapa. Lama Tsongkhapa had himself absorbed and then presented the Buddha’s teachings in a manner appropriate, acceptable and relevant to people in the fifteenth century. That’s exactly what Lama was doing. Lama’s teachings were extraordinary and very different from Rinpoche’s, whose teachings were always absolutely traditional with not a single corner cut. Lama’s teachings were always fun, really meaningful and relevant to everyone’s lives. They were teachings from a very deep place of complete understanding of the psychological mechanics of mind. Not just human mind, but all mind. It seemed to me that if Lama Tsongkhapa were to reincarnate in these times, this is exactly what he would do.”

Yucca Valley group portrait, 1977

Yucca Valley group portrait, 1977

From Lama Yeshe’s teachings on Vajrapani at Yucca Valley, California, in 1977:

Every day, in every moment, underneath everything else, you have the thought, “I am this or that kind of person, this or that kind of deluded, impure person.” It doesn’t matter whether you are religious or non-religious in your attitudes, you all have some kind of ordinary idea of who and what you are. Consciously or unconsciously you also apply that projection to all the other people, the other sentient beings, surrounding you. This mistaken conception pervades everything that you see; it characterizes your fundamental neurosis, your basic mental illness.

When we practice guru yoga, we have a small experience of a unified living image of ourselves and others. Through that experience and by learning the essence of the guru, we can gradually transcend our mundane relationships with others; we can transcend our mistaken and neurotic mental concepts and the atmosphere they create within us and around us.

We are surrounded by living beings. We are constantly involved with each other, always interacting, relating. Most human problems arise through our interactions with other human beings due to our mistaken ordinary concepts and the vibrations that we project onto others. From our neurotic and agitated state we tend to view other people as ordinary sense objects from which we try to gain some kind of sense gratification for our attachments rather than engaging others in an easy way with respect, seeing them positively. For example, perhaps it is possible to transcend such an ordinary view by transforming all sentient beings into the form of Vajrapani, so that your mind is automatically energized with an attitude of loving kindness and wisdom. In this way whenever you see another person, then your wisdom is energized, bringing greater control of your mind and blissful enjoyment in your life.

The purpose of practicing guru yoga and the yoga method of Vajrapani is to release all the impure, depressed, dissatisfied energy within you by visualizing and actualizing such a transcendental vision. The specific way that we practice the guru yoga of Vajrapani—the process of dissolving, sinking, unifying—enables us to purify the dualistic mind and discover total unity. This is its purpose. Our ordinary existence is rooted in separation. Everything is fragmented because of our mistaken and exaggerated conceptions. Even though we are so disconnected and living in the world of our projections, we have the strong impression that we are completely crowded. This crowded feeling needs to be released.

It is true. Many times the projections that we have are completely unreal, non-existent, but because we believe them, we then experience them as if they exist. A good example: Sometimes when you are afraid and insecure, perhaps in a dark place, then you imagine seeing something out there. You think, “Maybe somebody is out there.” You look out into the dark where there is a group of trees and then you see something moving there. Nothing is actually there but you see something nevertheless. Something seems to be there and it appears to be real, even though it is not. Just like that.

Another example is when we are always thinking that there is something physically wrong with us. When we constantly say, “This hurts, that hurts, this hurts, that hurts.” Even if there isn’t really anything wrong in all those places, pretty soon you start to actually have pain, because you believe your projections.

Therefore, having such a unified transcendental recognition of ourselves and others as the deity is so important. This is how we train our minds to perceive reality positively without our ordinary agitated negative vibrations. From the start of retreat, all students should see themselves in the vision of the radiating rainbow body of Vajrapani. Contemplate and be aware of this as much as possible, all the time. Observe closely. If you can do this, then your retreat becomes a transcending process. Also, continuously recite Vajrapani’s mantra. Reciting mantra is very important. Mantra has a kind of energy to bring your mind into single-pointedness, rather than it being fragmented and scattered.

All existent energy has some kind of vibration, either positive or negative, to inspire. You can feel this vibration. Our negative egotistic deluded minds can spread their negative vibrations into material things. However, mantra cannot be affected in this way by the deluded mind. Mantra has a kind of purity; from the beginning it is pure.

You do not necessarily have to be sitting when you recite mantra; when you walk, even when you go to the bathroom, wherever you go or whatever you do you can be reciting mantra…even when you go shopping at the supermarket. You don’t need to make a big show of it; you just act naturally. You don’t even have to recite mantra with your mouth. You can recite mentally. You can do.

By integrating the mind into single-pointedness, mantra automatically energizes you with peace, bliss, joy. For example, the Vajrapani mantra is all the supreme powerful energy transformed into mantra. Vajrapani’s mantra is Vajrapani. It can cure any disease, but you need strength, meditation, and the power of inspiration within you. Really, it is possible!

[1].    Roughly, Vajrapani means “holding a vajra in the hand.” Vajrapani embodies enlightened power. Together with Manjushri (enlightened wisdom) and Chenrezig (enlightened compassion), he represents the third of the triad of primary characteristics of enlightenment. He appears as a wrathful buddha, dark blue in color, with one face, two arms and two legs.

Refuge at the Yucca Valley Course

Rinpoche and Lama meditating, Delhi,1975
From  1977: The more meditation, the more happy! by Adele Hulse, Big Love author:

One hundred people enrolled in Lama Zopa Rinpoche’s two-week lam-rim course at the Institute for Mental Physics in Yucca Valley, a residential retreat center in the California desert east of Los Angeles.

During Rinpoche’s course, Lama Yeshe gave a couple of talks. Among those meeting him for the first time was Jacie Keeley. “He looked very sick, all soft and squishy, and his skin was a yellow-gray putty color,” said Jacie. “This gray little man walked into the big room, climbed up on this huge throne and sat in meditation. By the time he spoke he was big, golden and powerful. I was impressed. I wore dark glasses to every talk Lama gave because I cried through every one. On my twenty-eighth birthday I went to Lama, told him I wanted to follow the bodhisattva path and was willing to help him in any way. I was absolutely hooked.”

It was also Janet Brooke’s first course. “I was raised a Mormon and ultra-Christian in outlook. At first everything the lamas said reinforced my heartfelt beliefs, but one morning Rinpoche was talking about taking responsibility for ourselves rather than leaving it all to God. Suddenly I felt very confused, started crying and left the room. After attending a group interview with Lama Yeshe I realized it was merely a matter of terminology and at the end of the course felt perfectly comfortable about taking refuge.”

Before the refuge ceremony Lama Yeshe told those who had come together for the ceremony, “Don’t do it just to do it. It’s really important to know if you have a connection with that teacher. See if when you think of that person, some kind of strong feeling comes up in your heart, even tears.” “Tears came out of nowhere for me pretty much every time I saw Lama,” said Lois Greenwood-Audant, who had been at the fourth Kopan course with her partner, Gabriel.

Carol Fields also took refuge, giving Lama her wedding ring as an offering—the only thing of value she had with her. “In front of everyone Lama Yeshe held up the ring and said, ‘This is a ring that people get married with, but I think she and I have been married for a long time.’ It was years before my usually sharp-eyed husband noticed the ring was missing. I think that ring not only bound me to Lama but protected my long marriage.”

Listening to the lam-rim teachings and just being with the lamas changed people’s lives. One man put his will in order before coming to the course and found many other students had done the same, sensing their lives were going to change forever. During this course Carol Royce-Wilder filmed the lamas walking around the Yucca Valley institute grounds. A great hawk circled above them, landing on a branch just beside Lama Yeshe. He walked right over to it and held up his hand. The bird didn’t move a muscle. “Power and magic!” exclaimed the Carlos Castaneda devotees.

Indeed, Lama Yeshe seemed to connect powerfully with many animals, even cats. Cats were quite rare in Tibet and Lama would have had little contact with them before coming to the West. Nicole Couture was present when Lama once pinched the tip of a cat’s tail, which made it walk backwards like a little robot. Nicole tried that later with other cats, but with no success whatsoever.

From Lama Zopa Rinpoche’s lam-rim teachings at Yucca Valley, California, in 1977:

The word “Dharma” is Sanskrit. Dharma means “holding up.” For example, if a person is about to fall down from a precipice, then holding them back from falling means to hold them back from getting hurt or killed. Dharma is a method that protects us from the dangers of suffering and unhappiness. This is the meaning of Dharma.

      In the West there are many different kinds of knowledge: psychology, education, psychiatry, and so on. What are all these for, what is their purpose? All these different methods are to bring about greater happiness instead of suffering. In the same way, the Dharma is a method for happiness. And the Buddhadharma contains all the various methods that are taught through education, that have different names. All this knowledge is contained in the Dharma, with nothing missing.

      The greatest problem for everyone, for even the tiniest creature, for every human being, is exactly the same: wanting happiness and not wanting suffering. Every living being hopes that the methods they employ in trying to obtain happiness will be successful, that whatever they decide to do will work. The problem is that in trying to achieve happiness and eliminate suffering they generally employ only external methods. They believe that happiness and suffering are caused by external factors. This is, in fact, a basic wrong conception. Both happiness and suffering are internal; they are both mental phenomena. They are not external, not physical. And the causes of happiness and suffering are also internal and mental; they are not external nor physical. The causes of suffering are in the mind and so to eliminate suffering those causes need to be purified, cleansed. In the same way the causes of happiness are also internal in nature, so in order to achieve happiness we must establish those causes in the mind.

      Let’s look at a simple example. Let’s say that someone steals your tape recorder. When you discover that your tape recorder has been stolen, at first there arises a sense of clinging. Your mind becomes so unhappy. Anger arises, and depression. But in that very minute, if you were to think that you should actually make charity, if you think how extremely kind this person has been to you, how helpful he is to give you this opportunity to make charity, then right in that moment there is a realization in the mind. If you totally determine in your mind to give your tape recorder to that other person, right then, in that moment when the decision is made, there is a true realization in the mind. You experience peace in your mind. Within just one minute the mind has been changed, from suffering to happiness. Before, the mind was unhappy, suffering, depressed. But by means of a single thought, just the determination to give the object away, the problem ceased and the unhappiness was stopped. The mind becomes peaceful, relaxed.

      In this way you can see that happiness, peace of mind, is not received from external factors. Happiness and peace of mind arise from internal factors, just by changing the way that we think. By applying a different way of thinking, we can experience happiness and stop suffering.

      Suffering is caused by the dissatisfied mind of attachment. This is one of the poisonous minds. When you plant a poisonous tree in your garden, you will get only poisonous fruit, but if you plant a medicinal tree, then you will get medicinal fruit. In the same way, by following the poisonous mind, the result that you get will be only suffering, but by planting positive virtuous minds, you will receive happiness as the result.


Lama and Jon Landaw: “Thank you dear”

jonlandaw_lamayesheFrom 1976: Heaven is Now! by Adele Hulse, Big Love author:

Jon Landaw worked closely with Lama Yeshe again during this course, editing his teachings and leading discussions. “Lama believed that at the start of a course it was more beneficial for newcomers if the students appointed to answer questions were not ordained,” said Jon. “He thought the robes might intimidate them at first, but when they got used to seeing Western monks and nuns it no longer mattered who answered questions. I usually gave the introductory talks. Prostrations always seemed to freak a lot of people out at first. Since I didn’t have a religious background I felt comfortable pointing out there was value in the act, that it wasn’t just bowing to graven images.”

Ever practical, Lama Yeshe allowed students to develop at their own pace. For example, Jon Landaw refused to even think about the subject of reincarnation for the first three years. “When the lamas taught on rebirth I just put down my pen,” he said. “I didn’t even take notes. There are so many riches in the Buddhist teachings I didn’t worry about the bits that made me feel uncomfortable. Besides, Lama was always advising us to be skeptical. ‘Check up, dear,’ was his constant refrain. ‘This meditation course isn’t about Buddha, it isn’t even about Buddhism. It’s about you. Whatever you hear you have to check up,’ he told us. He loved us trying to pick holes in his arguments. He knew a lot of us had run away from religion and were totally against blind faith.

“There were certain expressions Lama used repeatedly. For example, when he talked about experiences he knew we’d had he would say, ‘So simple, dear!’ That allowed us to acknowledge these experiences. He said ‘Thank you dear’ so often that some of us called him ‘the thank you lama.’ I’m not sure if any of us quite knew what his ‘Thank you, dears’ meant, because he’d say it when he did something for us. Perhaps it was for the opportunity to be of service.

“Another of his power expressions was ‘Difficult!’—meaning he understood how difficult it was for us to change our habits, but that it was definitely possible to change. He taught us that every time we recognized the sufferings of another sentient being, this could become the motivation for us to continue on the spiritual path. In this way desperate situations could be turned into positive experiences.

“Lama was always involving us in activities rather than running the show himself. It was always, ‘Let’s do it together.’ He gave me the confidence to give talks, lead discussions and edit. He told me it wasn’t Tibetans who were going to bring Dharma to the West, but Westerners.

“I never asked him why he didn’t finish his geshe degree. He always made light of the subject. ‘Oh, all these people taking exams and making tea offerings—it’s just a Tibetan trip,’ he’d say. ‘I got the impression that if you had the knowledge you didn’t need the degree. I don’t know if that was his only attitude to it but it was the one he showed us.

“Lama had a unique teaching style. Instead of saying, ‘Do you understand me?’ he’d ask, ‘Are we communicating?’ Moreover, he acted out what he was saying, which was very helpful because not all his students spoke English. Even those who did speak English often couldn’t understand him properly until they caught on to his unusual rhythms of speech, peculiar pronunciation and unorthodox sentence structure. Lama communicated far beyond the meaning of the words he used, using facial expressions and sometimes just silences to get his point across. This made it challenging to edit his teachings for publication, because so much of what he conveyed was non-verbal.

“Lama’s ability to communicate without relying on words was truly phenomenal. I remember one day at Kopan there was an outdoor picnic being held to celebrate the conclusion of a meditation course. The mother of two students was attending. She spoke only Spanish. English was the only Western language Lama knew, but that didn’t stop him from holding a ‘conversation’ with her. I was standing at some distance from them, but even from there I could clearly understand what Lama was ‘saying’ to her. Using the gestures of a master mime, he addressed the fears she had by acting out the following: ‘I know you are concerned about your children being so far from home, but you don’t have to worry. I will keep an eye on them.’”

During the closing puja it was customary for a tray to be passed around for those who wanted Lama Yeshe to bless their malas, small statues and other personal items. One girl added a White Tara thangka to the pile and was surprised when Lama Yeshe later suggested she have it framed.

“There was no name on it so how did he know it was mine?” she wondered. “I did have it framed, though in very untraditional colors. When I went back to McLeod Ganj, Dharamsala, I left it with my luggage in Tashi’s thukpa shop while I went looking for a room. When I came back to collect my things, the thangka was just gone.

“Some weeks later I was in the Dalai Lama’s temple, and lo and behold, there was my White Tara thangka hanging on the wall. I recognized it immediately. The monk in charge told me it had been found in the marketplace. I suddenly felt it was exactly where it ought to be. I left it there, where it still hangs to this day among many other White Tara thangkas.”

After the meditation course, Lama Yeshe gave a Manjushri initiation to a select few in the privacy of his room. “I’d done a number of retreats and considered myself a great meditator,” said one man there. “In the Vajrasattva commentary it says that during purification your nervous system is destroyed so it can be rebuilt. That is exactly what Lama Yeshe did to mine during that initiation: he tore my nervous system apart.”

Lama Yeshe on Asanga

From 15 December 1976 to 2 January 1977 Lama Yeshe taught on chapter one of Discriminating Between the Middle and the Extremes,[1] one of the five great treatises attributed to Maitreya, the “coming Buddha.”

A remarkable story tells how these great texts came to exist. The fourth-century Indian saint, Asanga, lived in a cave in retreat and engaged in the practice of Maitreya, praying continuously to see the future buddha. After three years of practice with no results, Asanga gave up, thinking his efforts were fruitless, and started to leave. But as he walked down the mountain, he saw a bird fly between two large boulders to get at its nest. The boulders were worn smooth simply from the bird’s feathers repeatedly brushing against them. Asanga thought to himself that if such a gentle occurrence could have such an effect, then surely he could try harder and reach his goal. So he returned to retreat.

After three more years of practice with no results, again Asanga abandoned his retreat in discouragement. But again, as he walked away from his cave, he saw a spot where water was dripping onto a rock surface. The constant dripping of the water had worn a hole in the rock over time. Again, this made a strong impression on Asanga’s mind and he returned to his retreat with renewed inspiration.

After three more years of practice with no results again, Asanga became quite desperate; again, he abandoned his cave and headed down the mountainside. This time he saw a man patiently making sewing needles by rubbing a thick piece of iron with just a thread. Surely, thought Asanga, if this man can be so patient and work so hard for such a small result, I can try harder. Back he went, for three more years.

At the end of those years Asanga had been in retreat for twelve years and still he didn’t seem to have had any results at all. This time he left his cave determined not to return. On his way to the nearest village Asanga saw a sick and wounded dog lying by the side of the path. Its wounds were rotting and full of maggots. Asanga’s heart was moved with compassion and the wish to help this poor suffering dog. But he also did not wish to harm in any way the maggots feeding on its flesh. He had to devise a way to help all of them without harming anyone. Asanga then sliced a piece of flesh from his own leg and placed it beside the dog. Knowing that if he tried to pick up the maggots with his fingers, he would squash them, Asanga decided to lick the maggots off one by one with his tongue so as not to hurt them, and to place them onto the flesh from his leg, which would provide them with needed food. Closing his eyes, he leaned over the dog to do this. As he leaned further and further forward, he became puzzled as he never reached the dog’s wound. Asanga opened his eyes and was amazed to see that the dog was no longer there and before him stood Maitreya.

Asanga immediately exclaimed, “Where have you been? Why didn’t you come to me in retreat?” Pointing to some spittle adhering to the hem of his robe, Maitreya replied, “My son, even though you couldn’t see me, I have been with you constantly since your first day in the cave. Remember all the times you caught cold and had to spit? Here it is on my robe, where it landed. You recited my mantra more than a billion times and developed very powerful concentration, but your mind was still bound by the self-cherishing attitude. Today you have learned the meaning of loving others more than yourself; therefore, you are able to see me as I am.”

Asanga was so delighted that he lifted Maitreya onto his shoulders and paraded through the town, crying, “Behold, Maitreya has come!’ But the people of the village saw only a crazy man carrying nothing at all on his shoulders, with the exception of one old woman who saw the wounded dog.

Then Asanga took hold of Maitreya Buddha’s robe and was transported off to the pure land of Tushita, where he spent just one morning. During that brief celestial visit Maitreya transmitted to Asanga five major treatises, of which Discriminating Between the Middle and the Extremes was one. When Asanga was returned to earth, bringing with him these texts by Maitreya, he was amazed to find that fifty years had passed!

In later years, Lama Yeshe shared the following reflections with his students about this story: “I think this story very beautifully illustrates an essential point of Mahayana thought. People often have a tendency to think meditation is easy. One just sits down on the cushion and immediately reaches beyond all delusion into divine wisdom. This simply is not so. It is a gradual process. We must be realistic and start where we are. The mind is a difficult thing to tame. For example, we all know how difficult it is to preserve our bodies. According to Mahayana Buddhism it is much more difficult to keep our mind in tranquility and full of wisdom. It is not enough to have perfect single pointed concentration. We must also have the great wish for enlightenment (bodhicitta) the nature of which is selfless love and universal compassion.”

[1].    In Tibetan, U ta nam che, in Sanskrit, Madhyanta-vibhanga. CN

From Lama Yeshe’s teachings on Discriminating Between the Middle and the Extremes at Kopan in 1976:

Chapter 1, Stanza 4:

The environment (sensory world), sentient beings, the self-existent entity and cognition (in general)—all these appearances of mental consciousness strongly grow (from the repeated imprints of superstition); these (appearances) do not exist (in the way they are perceived). (Therefore) because the object does not exist (as it appears), the subject (perceiving the object) also does not exist (as it appears).

Each time we have delusion, our appearances become thicker and thicker. For example, our memories of home or of our neighborhood supermarket will frequently come into our minds. These memories come from imprints that are placed on the consciousness and remain there continuously. When we sit down and try to meditate on a subject again and again, these memories come up again and again. We don’t want them, but we can’t stop them. Intellectual understanding isn’t enough; we need method and wisdom. We start with our intellectual understanding. Then we practice contemplation from which experience comes.

Roughly speaking, we can talk about two types of sense objects: inert material forms and sentient beings, beings with mind. These objects in the external sense world appear to our consciousness. But the appearances of these things don’t exist in the way they are perceived. The various appearances of the material world, sentient beings, the self-existent I, all our sense perceptions—all these appearing things do not exist in the way we perceive them. We can say this in another way: that is, the entire sense world does not exist as perceived because we only perceive our limited dualistic view. This is especially true with regard to our perceptions of the ego—“I am”—and each other.

Nevertheless, our deluded perceiving consciousness continues to grow because the imprints of dualistic appearance are repeated billions of times. For example, when we see the color white, the object of our sense consciousness is manifested from our consciousness. The imprint is manifested from our consciousness into a color, which then appears to us. There’s no color white sitting there waiting for us to perceive it. When our consciousness looks at the environment, the environment comes into existence.

Lama Yeshe’s first visit to Manjushri Institute

Lama Yeshe, Lake Arrowhead, 1975

From 1976: Heaven is Now! by Adele Hulse, Big Love author:

The purchase of Conishead Priory, now known as Manjushri Institute, was completed ten days before the lamas arrived in London on 31 August 1976. In Lama Yeshe’s luggage was a gift for the new center—Jampa Chökyi’s beautiful Tara Chittamani thangka, painted and sewn from pieces of silk and blessed by Trijang Rinpoche.

When it was purchased in 1976 the Priory had been empty for four years and the building was riddled with damp and dry rot. For the seventy people who attended the lamas’ first meditation course held there, karma yoga ranked high on the list of duties. Fortunately, it was late summer. Ripe fruit was falling fatly from the fruit trees, the old roses were in bloom and no bitter cold winds howled through the long damp corridors. It was also fortunate that an experienced and cheerful cook, Ronnie King, had hitchhiked up to Cumbria from Glastonbury. She was unfazed by the vast broken-down kitchens. During their visit, Lama Yeshe and Lama Zopa Rinpoche stayed in a small, dry cottage in the grounds close to the market garden.

Marcel Bertels, at the time the gekö (disciplinarian) of the International Mahayana Institute, was in the Netherlands teaching a lam-rim course which eventually led to the creation of a new center in that country. Lama Yeshe asked him to come to Manjushri. Until this time Marcel had focused mainly on study and retreat, but things were about to change for him.

“Lama Yeshe and Rinpoche invited me for lunch, which meant that something unusual was on the agenda,” Marcel recounted. “Lama explained that Roger Wheeler was burned out trying to run the fashion business in Kathmandu, for which Peter Stripes in Melbourne was still the main customer. He asked me if I could take over on a day-to-day basis because he was concerned about the financial viability of the Sangha. ‘Try for one year, dear,’ Lama told me. I had no wish to leave my studies and go to work, but since Lama had asked I knew there had to be a profound reason behind his request. I figured this had to be part of my path.

“I was in the same position as Roger Wheeler, in that I had neither talent nor business experience. So everything was by trial and error. At first we made a little money, mainly by not spending any. When I left Kopan to go to work on my first day Lama had told me, ‘You walk everywhere. If you are busy, you can take a rickshaw.’ For some years I commuted between Kopan and the business in Kathmandu every day. This meant a forty-five minute walk, then a journey of indeterminate length on the badly maintained and overcrowded mini-buses running between Boudhanath and Ratna Park in Kathmandu.

“That was the start of my long career in business. At the end of the day it was usually quite late by the time I walked back up the hill at Kopan. Lama kept an eye on things all the time. Every night when I came back to Kopan I spent an hour with him. He’d ask me what was going on in the business, as well as what the Sangha were doing and so on. It was very consistent.”

The first course that Lama Yeshe taught at Manjushri Institute was on general Buddhist teachings, including the subjects of the graduated path.


From Lama Yeshe’s 1976 teachings at Manjushri Institute, Cumbria

You can explain karma in many different ways. For example, it can be explained academically with many divisions and analytical points of view. But right now I am going to give just a simple explanation.

      Karma means action; the actions of body, speech, and mind are karma. For example, we have just recited, “I take refuge in Buddha, Dharma, and Sangha; I will follow the Dharma.” But if we are not conscious in our everyday actions of body, speech, and mind I think it is difficult to really take refuge.

      Taking refuge cannot solve your problems if you are not aware of your own actions. Even though you believe, “Buddha is fantastic; Dharma is fantastically pure; Sangha is fantastic. They are perfect; I have no doubts,” that is not enough. It is not enough to say, “Okay, I understand from the meditation, the books, and the lamas that Buddhadharma is perfectly clean clear. I know now that this is my path.” If you live that way rather than being aware of your own actions, I think refuge cannot solve your problems. Real refuge is saying and doing things according to the motivation of refuge in your mind; and that is karma.

      Karma means that you act in a certain way with a certain motivation and some effect arises within you. Karma can be positive or negative. Actions that bring a positive reaction we call morality; actions that bring a negative reaction we call immorality. Whatever action—or we can call it energy—of body, speech, or mind that brings confusion, restlessness, sorrow, or suffering is immorality. So as much as possible, we should try to understand Lord Buddha’s teaching which says that certain actions are morality and certain actions are immorality because they bring good or bad reactions.

      Understanding this, as much as possible in your everyday life you should make your actions positive. Try to understand, “If I think this way and act this way, what kind of result will it bring?” Knowing this is very important. Also, karma is not something that you just believe. Your entire energy since you were born has been related to karma. The existence of karma is not dependent on whether somebody believes it or not.

      For example, maybe you say, “I don’t believe in karma. I don’t believe in anything. There is no such thing as karma making me happy or unhappy.” No matter how much you are against it, the entire you, your saying this and thinking that—it is all karma. No matter how much a person may be against Lord Buddha’s idea…it doesn’t matter. The entire person, both psychologically and physically, who is tick, tick, ticking like a watch—all of that is karma. Therefore, karma is just the energy of one’s body, speech, and mind. The human body, speech, and mind are karma.

      The meaning of karma includes cause and effect. Your entire physical and mental energy, everything is reacting and producing other actions, no matter whether you believe it or not. Sometimes Western people think, “Well, if I am Buddhist and I believe Lord Buddha’s idea, then I have to be careful. If I am not careful I will get bad karma, but if I do not believe it doesn’t matter.”

      Many Western people think like this; in my life I have heard some people say this. It is not like that. Karma does not depend on whether you believe it or not. It doesn’t matter if you believe; it doesn’t matter if you don’t believe; it doesn’t matter even if you reject. Karma is talking about natural scientific law—that’s all. Natural scientific law—how can you reject that? It is not something Lord Buddha made up.

      Also, there is some confusion around Eastern words. The word karma is Sanskrit. When one says karma you say, “Oh, karma is Eastern stuff.” You cannot do like that. All of you is karma. You are karma; you cannot escape from karma. It does not matter if you follow another religion, if you are Hindu, if you are Christian, if you are a believer or a non-believer, you are completely immersed in karma

      That is why karma is very heavy. You cannot say, “I don’t believe in suffering.” It does not matter whether you believe you are suffering or not, you are suffering. Your suffering is not dependent on whether you believe in it or not.

      Now, you can see through your own meditation experience how the mind is continually circling around—whooooshhhhhh. You cannot stop your mind from running around—one thought, then another thought, and another thought, and another…phew! Incredible! This is karma, the uncontrolled thoughts running, running like a watch. Without understanding the activity of our body, speech, and mind we will not understand how to generate a positive or a negative lifestyle. Even though we have tremendous belief that “Buddhadharma is my way,” we are still joking.

      The simple way to live positively is to examine the everyday actions of your own body, speech, and mind. As much as possible be aware; what we call morality is putting the energy of body, speech, and mind in a positive direction. But in the West, morality and immorality have religious connotations. There are some funny ideas such as the belief that morality is something made up by religious people. No! Morality is not merely a religious idea; it is not some philosophical creation. Morality is about nature.

      Scientists explain natural things—organic, inorganic, the evolution of human beings, fish, and monkeys. This is all taught at school and you learn these things. From Lord Buddha’s point of view, karma is closer to the things you learn at school. In your school, as much as possible, they teach the scientific way, “This is exactly like this, then this comes, then this, then that,” and so on, the mathematical way. Karma is similar.

      Actually, if you are aware of how your own body, speech, and mind are running, the evolution of your everyday life is similar to what you learned at school. When you understand karma you will see how greatly effective is just one small action. For example, when Lord Buddha once explained karma, he gave the example of the small seed of a Bodhi tree. Do you know the Bodhi tree in Bodhgaya? It is huge, isn’t it? He took some seeds of the Bodhi tree and said that by putting one tiny seed into the ground the effect is a huge tree that can give shelter to 500 bullock carts. This is Lord Buddha’s example, a small seed produces such a huge plant. It is the same thing with karma. Especially the psychological effect, this is much greater than the external effect.

      In the West, some people think that karma is something simple whereas meditation is a profound and unusual contemplation where you become very high and feel, “I’m happy…” They think that is fantastic. Actually, according to the lam-rim, meditation is not the most important thing. What is extremely important is to maintain awareness of your everyday life actions. Be aware of your own actions and put your actions on the right track. Then you will begin to experience an incredible effect.


The Tara Statue

Rinpoche painting Tara, 1976From 1976: Heaven is Now! by Adele Hulse, Big Love author:

Another American, Connie Miller, had arrived on Christmas Day 1975 to stay at Kopan. A couple of weeks earlier in December, she had come up to Kopan to visit her friend Karuna Cayton, a fellow student from The Evergreen State College in Washington State (USA) doing independent research in Nepal for his final university theses. Karuna was participating in the group lam-rim retreat one hundred students were doing with Thubten Pende following the November meditation course.

On the afternoon of that first visit, Thubten Pemo got talking with Connie. Pemo said she felt strongly “from the sound of her voice” that she should join the retreat. Connie wasn’t easily convinced, since she had not done the previous month-long meditation course, but Pemo persisted. She was also enticed by Pemo telling her that Lama Yeshe was going to be giving a Green Tara initiation sometime soon. The topic of the thesis Connie was working on was related to female deities in Tibetan Buddhism, and to Tara in particular.

Connie returned to Kathmandu with the intention of packing her things and coming up to Kopan to stay. She finally walked up the hill carrying her backpack, arriving during the Christmas puja taking place in the large tent on the side of Kopan hill. After getting settled, Connie joined the guided lam-rim retreat and attended the mind training teachings on the Eight Verses of Thought Transformation from Lama Zopa Rinpoche that were also taking place.

“One day in January Rinpoche was looking down from the balcony outside his room as Connie sat in the sun behind the gompa. She had fallen ill with bronchitis and stopped attending the retreat sessions. After they talked for a while, Rinpoche invited her to help him paint the large Tara statue Lama Yeshe had sent Max to find in Kathmandu,” recalled Pemo. “This surprised me a lot. Rinpoche paid a lot of attention to Connie and they spent a lot of time together painting. Now when people ask Connie how she met the lamas she always says it was because of me. Then we look at each other and laugh.”

Rinpoche explained exactly how the statue should be painted and told a visiting elderly relative from Solu Khumbu to help Connie. Lama Pasang had begun constructing a glass-fronted house on a pedestal where the statue would eventually reside. Lama Yeshe wanted Tara to overlook a triangular pond surrounded by flowers that was to be built under the ancient bodhi tree that stood in front of the gompa.

For some time, the unfinished Tara statue sat on the balcony outside the lamas’ rooms and Connie came every afternoon to paint for a few hours. Sometimes Lama Yeshe came out after his afternoon “rest” and talked with her, occasionally sharing his special tea. “That tea was incredible! Part salty and part sweet, almost like a hot tea-flavored milkshake,” she said. “It was unlike anything I had ever tasted, before or since.”

“After a while, the statue was moved into the Kopan library, a big room, also called Mummy Max’s room, located above the office, and I continued painting it there. Jampa Chökyi was also working on an embroidered appliqué thangka in the same room,” Connie continued. “Whenever she showed it to Lama he’d shout at her, telling her it was all wrong and she must undo it. The way Lama pushed her was incredible. He cut through all her excuses like a knife. Jampa Chökyi was a proud young Spanish woman from a wealthy family and I had a lot of respect for her and the way she accepted all the criticism.” Jampa Chökyi made at least two appliquéd thangkas, including one of thousand-armed Chenrezig made of pieces of silk and installed at Lawudo, and a second one of Tara Chittamani, also made of silk, that was eventually hung at Vajrapani Institute in California.

Eventually, on 16 March, just as Thubten Pemo had said, Lama Yeshe conferred a Green Tara initiation to a group of Western students and Connie was able to attend.

One afternoon, when the painting was nearly done, Lama showed Connie several packets of gems that were destined to adorn the statue of Tara. “Lama often talked to me about Tara. ‘Tara has so many beautiful, natural jewels,’ he once told me. Naturally I was thinking in the most concrete terms, of gemstones, but the way Lama looked at me it suddenly dawned on me that he was speaking of a very different type of jewel, of Tara’s qualities that transcend anything physical. I felt quite embarrassed by how dense I was!” Connie recalled.


From Lama Yeshe’s teachings on Tara in March 1976:

What is Divine Wisdom Mother Tara? Who is she? All this wintertime we have been working to fix our Mummy Tara statue. So I think that at least you have a good visualization, a good basic understanding of what she looks like. I hope so.

The actual Divine Wisdom Mother Tara is the embodiment of all the manifested activities of all universal supreme beings. Their actions are transformed into Tara’s green radiating light body. Therefore, meditation on Tara can result in very incredible and powerful activities. Also, her meditation yields results very quickly. This is because Tara is in female aspect and we consider feminine energy to have the characteristic of being quicker, acting more quickly than masculine energy. The favorite deity of all the great Mahayana saints is Tara.

This profound yoga method of Divine Wisdom Mother Tara brings us to the everlasting peaceful realizations of enlightenment, benefiting not only ourselves but also all mother sentient beings. But also many people—materialistic people and even some lamas—also do this puja all the time not for enlightenment realizations, you understand, but just to have a comfortable and successful life. For example, the farmers who are growing wheat and barley may be worried that there won’t be sufficient rain this year for their crops, so they do this puja to ensure that the rains will come. This is the same as the Nepalese people who make offerings to Kali [the Hindu mother goddess] because they think that if they do not, they won’t have good crops that year, no rice, no dhal, and so on. It is some kind of simple mind, you know. But even that is not right! Using such an incredibly powerful method in such a simple way is like using a cloth made of gold to clean your toilet. If I were to do that, you would say to me, “What a stupid lama you are! Why are you using this incredibly valuable golden cloth to clean your bathroom?”

The position in which Tara is sitting has great significance. Her right leg is extended outward and down whereas her left leg is drawn in, sitting this way, yes? This means that Tara has complete control. She is able to completely control all her monthly periods, all emotional up-and-down mood swings, up-and-down female energy. She has realized complete control over all these aspects. How wonderful! This is why if you understand the real essence of Tara it is very encouraging to women, you understand? Women are better able to take care of the body, to make the body beautiful; they have better understanding of these things. It is possible, yes? More importantly, women are encouraged by using such a yoga method that they are equally able to discover enlightenment, just as men can do. There is no distinction! In this Mahayana yoga tantra tradition, there is no division between what men can accomplish and what women can accomplish. There is nothing that says that men can discover enlightenment realizations in this life using this powerful yoga method but women cannot. This is wrong! We are all equally capable; we all have the same possibilities.

Historically, when Mother Tara first took the bodhisattva vows she vowed in front of the Buddha at that time, “There are many buddhas in male aspect in the world but very few in female aspect. So I will remain always in female aspect and become enlightened in female aspect in order to help all Dharma practitioners be successful.” She promised! Therefore, any serious Dharma practitioner who engages in the deity practice of Tara will be very successful. This yoga method can also be used to bring success for Dharma purposes, to overcome problems, even to obtain material things, equipment that we need for our Dharma practice. In such cases, you can use this practice for those purposes. Clearly, it all depends on your motivation.

When the painting project was completed, Lama told Connie to join him in the gompa one afternoon toward the end of April so he could show her exactly where the various jewels should be placed on Tara’s crown, necklace, bracelets and so on. The day of the meeting, however, Connie found herself doubled over with intense abdominal pains. Incapacitated and in extreme distress, she was rushed down to Shanti Bhawan hospital in Kathmandu where it was determined that she was suffering an attack of appendicitis. That same evening, she was operated on, and according to her friends nearly died when she was carried to her room after the appendectomy and went into convulsions. “What I remember is a long series of dreams and hallucinations in which appeared various people from Kopan, monks and nuns and especially Lama Yeshe. I felt in my heart that Lama Yeshe was there with me. He had sent a message to me that I should visualize strong golden light entering into my belly, healing everything that was wrong,” Connie remembered. “Somehow this image pervaded all the hallucinations that I had all night long. I have no doubt that Lama saved my life.” Lama Yeshe had showered her with gifts, including a picture of himself inscribed on the back in his erratic hand, “Much love, Lama Yeshe. See you space.”

Meanwhile, Lama supervised the construction of the triangular reflecting pond. A week later, the Tara statue was scheduled to be consecrated in a series of special pujas attended by many dignitaries and Lama Yeshe’s personal friends, who brought mountains of offerings. Connie’s responsibility had been to paint the crown, the robes and the lotus seat on which Tara sits, but the fine detailed painting of Tara’s facial features, especially her eyes, was done by Lama Zopa Rinpoche. Rinpoche was truly able to bring Tara alive when he “opened the eyes” of the statue. This was the last step before the actual consecration, during which Tara was invited to come and reside in the statue.

“A week after the surgery, I checked myself out of the hospital and took a taxi back up to Kopan,” Connie reminisced. “I was able to attend the main puja, which went on for hours. During a break around midnight everyone was asked to leave the meditation hall. As I was leaving with the others Lama Yeshe told me to go wash my hands and feet and to come back quickly to the gompa. Lama, Lama Zopa Rinpoche, Lama Pasang, Lama Lhundrup, Tenzin Norbu Rinpoche, Gelek Gyatso Rinpoche, Yangsi Rinpoche and I were the only people in the gompa. The doors were then closed and I sat and looked on while they filled the statue with various holy things and prayers and mantras written on tightly rolled up lengths of paper. I was still full of stitches and had the strangest sensation of my own insides being stuffed. It was the most amazing experience! When they’d finished, everyone else returned and the puja continued all night long.

“The next morning, two monks carrying Tara on their shoulders led everyone in a joyous procession all around Kopan hill. Lama was wearing a ceremonial crown of the five tathagata buddhas and we stopped at various points to chant and make prayers. Lama explained to everyone that we were showing Tara around her new home. Then she was placed in her house in front of the gompa. I always thought of her as watching over and protecting Kopan from there.”


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. 


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