Jan Willis and the Solicks
In late October three more Americans walked into Kopan. They were Jan Willis, an African-American political activist majoring in philosophy, her best friend, Randy, and Randy’s husband, Robbie Solick. Jan had won a scholarship to study in Varanasi for a year, the only Westerner and the only woman in a class with seven Thai monks. Jan had been to India before. She had attended a Buddhist education program at the university in Varanasi and had gone on to Nepal, where she had made friends with a Tibetan monk, Losang Chonjor, who lived at Samten Ling Monastery in Boudhanath. Subsequently, they kept in touch through letters.
Jan had grown up in a deeply segregated South in the United States. The Ku Klux Klan had burned a cross in front of her family’s home in Alabama when she was accepted to college. A brilliant young student at Cornell, she had come in contact with the Black Panthers, a militant American political movement demanding equality for black citizens. She had considered joining them, but a factional division within the Panthers had led to her deciding to go to Europe and India with the Solicks instead.
In Varanasi, Arthur Mandelbaum, who had been studying with Nyingma lamas in India for seven years, told Jan and the Solicks of a Lama Yeshe, and said that he lived on a hill called Kopan beyond Boudhanath, on the way to Urgyen Tulku’s gompa. Upon hearing that name, “all the hairs on my skin gently stood erect,” Jan later recalled. Their travel plans had included a trip to Nepal. Arriving at Samten Ling Jan had asked for her friend Losang Chonjor, only to learn that he was away but that she was expected and could stay in his room. Samten Ling was now home to forty Tibetan and ten Mongolian monks—and Jan Willis. She asked the monks about the high lamas in the area. The kitchen monk took her outside, pointed up the hill, and said, “Thubten Yeshe.” It was the second time she had heard that name and once again she felt a tingling sensation at hearing it. That same day Jan went into Kathmandu and picked up the Solicks from their hotel. They took a taxi back out to Boudha stupa and then walked up to Kopan together.
Jan Willis: “It was a beautiful day to walk through the rice paddies. The only person at home when we arrived was Zina. She said there were only four people living there at the time: herself, the lamas, and a young cook. She invited us into her big room with thick, cushy wall-to-wall white carpet, and we chatted about America. When we asked to see Thubten Yeshe, she told us he was too busy to see us. Then she served us a wonderful vegetarian meal at a round brick outdoor table.
“We said goodbye while it was still light and started to depart. Just as we were turning the corner of the building, we saw a door at the far end open a little and a hand beckon us inside, followed by a face peering out…to check that Zina hadn’t seen. The three of us tiptoed into this tiny little room containing only two beds and a table. And so we met Thubten Yeshe and the thinnest monk I have ever seen. Thubten Yeshe managed the conversation pretty well with help from Zopa Rinpoche, who was already advanced in philosophical and technical psychological terms and eager to increase his vocabulary.
“We said that we were looking for a teacher. Thubten Yeshe replied, ‘I am so happy you made it here safely and have already had some training in meditation.’ That really blew us away. We had not told him that we had just had our first meditation classes in Bodhgaya or that just before leaving Europe we had had a very lucky escape from a serious road accident. We all felt that somehow he seemed to know everything already. He told us we could come back and study with him and that Zina would see to our accommodation.”
Jan decided to stay on at Samten Ling and study Tibetan language. The next day Robbie and Randy moved into one-half of a nearby house on the back side of Kopan hill belonging to a local Nepali farmer, Laxman Bahadur, cousin of Ram Bahadur, who later also rented his house out to Injis visiting Kopan. The Solicks stayed at Laxman’s house for almost a year.