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Ann McNeil and Ordination

Lama Zopa Rinpoche  and Lama Yeshe, 1970From 1970: The First Group Ordination by Adele Hulse, Big Love author:

In October 1970 Ann McNeil, a lanky Canadian ski instructor, arrived from Mykonos to stay with her friend Max.

Ann McNeil: “Max asked me if I wanted to receive a teaching from Lama Yeshe. She had given me a room in the tower of her house, and Lama Yeshe came up there. He taught me how to watch and count my breath, to imagine it entering and leaving.”

Lama Yeshe’s instructions on the basic nine-round breathing meditation:

First sit cross-legged, in the lotus or half-lotus position if you can, or just comfortably. Make sure your mind is here with your body. It’s no good if your body is here but your mind is at home. You can’t take a meditation course with your body alone. Meditation is done by the mind. Therefore, your mind should be with you in the present, not obsessed with another time, place, person, or some other object. The method we use to bring attention totally to the here-and-now is concentration on the breath— focusing on how your breath moves through your nervous system.

This is not all that this method is helpful for; it has many other benefits. It can even help you recover from physical illness. For example, if your nervous system has been damaged by a stroke, intensive concentration on the movement of your breath through your nervous system can restore its function. This is experience, not just empty talk.

If you are unfamiliar with the following meditation, you might find it easier to concentrate by closing the nostril you are not focusing on with your index finger.

As you breathe out through your left nostril, use your finger to block the right. Exhale slowly; don’t rush it. Breathe normally, but make sure to exhale completely. Then, move your finger to block the left nostril as you inhale slowly and deeply through your right. Then, for a second time, block your right nostril while you exhale slowly, gently, naturally and completely through the left, and then block your left nostril as you again inhale slowly and completely through the right. Repeat all this for a third time. Thus, you exhale through the left and inhale through the right three times.

Then reverse the procedure, breathing out through the right and in through the left three times. While doing this, sit up straight. This keeps your nervous system straight and allows the air you inhale to pervade your whole body, your entire nervous system. If you don’t keep your spine straight when you meditate, it is difficult for the breath energy to spread throughout your nervous system. Nevertheless, do this practice very naturally. Don’t force it.

When you inhale, feel that the air completely fills your body, and when you exhale, feel that it completely leaves. But while you’re doing this, don’t sit there thinking, “Now I’m doing the breathing exercise.” That’s not necessary. Just do it, concentrating on the movement of the breath energy through your nervous system as much as you possibly can.

Also, don’t think that this meditation is ridiculously simple. If you are aware, you will notice that people who are emotionally or mentally disturbed—for example, those who are depressed—breathe differently from normal people. This shows that the way the breath energy moves through the nervous system is very closely connected with the mind. You know from your own experience that when you are angry you don’t breathe normally. Sometimes anger can even make you physically sick.

You can measure scientifically how many times a day you breathe in and out. Buddhism has also calculated this. If you train yourself in the breathing meditation and practice breathing in and out slowly every day, you can prolong your life. If air enters your nervous system in a disturbed way it can disturb your mind. You should breathe slowly, steadily, naturally and completely, like a reliable old clock ticking away. Your breath is like an internal clock.

After you have breathed out through the left and in through the right three times, and out through the right and in through the left three times, breathe in and out through both nostrils together. Again, bring air in slowly, gently, naturally and completely, allowing it to fill your nervous system, and slowly, gently and completely send it out again. If your belt is too tight, loosen it. You should be comfortable when you do this practice. Again, don’t think, “I am doing the breathing exercise…right nostril…left nostril….” Just let your mind dwell in the concentration. Breathe in and out through both nostrils together about twenty times.

“The following weekend he gave me another lesson,” Ann continued. “I told him that I’d done Transcendental Meditation and been involved with the Hare Krishnas, and so I wondered which technique he thought was best for my temperament. He suggested we go to Swayambhu to ask Serkong Rinpoche what he thought. Then he pulled out this long Tibetan text and said, ‘Meanwhile, I’ll just recite this to bless you and give you a mantra. You just relax and meditate while I read.’

“He started reading and I noticed something interesting happening to his face—it was kind of lifting off, like a mask. I watched it float out about four inches, drift over to one side then go back to where it was. I thought, Wow! This is even more interesting than LSD! He continued reading, and it happened again. This time I really looked at it hard. I saw that the floating mask, though similar and Tibetan-looking, wasn’t really his own face. I thought, if it happens again, I’ll know I’m really seeing something…and it did, it happened again. Then Lama finished reading and got me to write down what I later discovered was the Vajrasattva mantra. By that time, I was pretty excited by him and said I didn’t think we really had to go see another lama. But he said, no, no, we should go.

“The next day was Max’s day off, so he pushed her to get out her little blue Volkswagen car and we drove over to see Serkong Dorje Chang. Serkong Rinpoche threw a mo and said to do whatever I’d been doing before I joined the Hare Krishnas. I told Lama that I’d been into many different things then, and he said, ‘Doesn’t matter, dear; we’ll ask again.’ The next time, the answer was, ‘Doesn’t matter which path you take to enlightenment, they all lead there.’ So I thought, Oh darn, I’ll just have to make the decision myself. But I liked Lama Yeshe, so I asked him if he would be my guru. He said, ‘Yes, dear,’ and that was that.

“The next day was Sunday and Max asked me to escort Lama up to Kopan. In that way I would find out where it was and be able to hear his lecture that afternoon. She told me to make sure that he didn’t dawdle so he would get there on time. As we walked up from Boudha, there was dew on the ground. Lama stopped constantly to pick up these worms that were on the path and put them to one side, so they wouldn’t get stepped on. I said that it was going to make us late and would he please stop. He just looked at me. His face was so shiny, so radiantly blissful that it was unforgettable. I knew he was showing me this bliss for my benefit, but I just didn’t know what to do with the experience.”

When the lamas returned to Rana House the following weekend, Max discussed her ordination with Lama Yeshe, at which point Ann asked to be ordained as well. Lama said that his own teacher Geshe Rabten should perform the ceremony. One week later Geshe Rabten sent a message saying that he would ordain them in Dharamsala on 16 December. Lama Yeshe suggested to Sylvia White, now living in Kathmandu with Harriet Straus, that she too might like to get ordained. There was also an American boy, James (whose surname is not known), who had been taking teachings for some time. He also wanted to become ordained.

By now the lamas were holding regular classes on Wednesdays and Sundays for a dozen or so Westerners. Numbers grew as the word went out that there were teachings available in English. Well, “sort of” English. Lama Yeshe taught in Tibetan, interspersed with an occasional string of complex psychological terms he had learned in English. Lama Zopa would then translate. Lama Yeshe constantly deferred to his closest disciple during these teachings. “Zopa Rinpoche is much better at teaching than I am,” he said. “I’m nobody, just a monk. Not even a geshe. I’m a drop-out geshe!”

Where he did push his charge was at the dinner table, constantly encouraging the frail Zopa Rinpoche, who did not look well, to eat. “You must eat! You must be strong for all sentient beings!” Lama Yeshe occasionally referred to his own weak heart, saying, “You never know how long your teacher will be with you.”

 

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Lama Yeshe’s English Language

Lama Yeshe in the old gompa, 1970From 1970: The First Group Ordination by Adele Hulse, Big Love author:

From the lamas’ perspective, the world of all these Injis was upside down. They had everything but drowned themselves in self-pity and a lack of confidence. It was ironic: Here were two refugees looking after a stream of well-educated middle-class Westerners, all of whom were full of fear, wringing their pale hands. “Don’t preak out!”

Lama Yeshe exhorted. “You can help people, you can do! You should try to help mother sentient beings. You must try! Possible, possible. The mind is so strong. Never underestimate the power of mind.”

The women were particularly disheartened by the lack of female lineage holders in the Tibetan Buddhist lineages. “Well, maybe you can be the first woman lama!” he would tell them. “Pantastic!” Of course, Lama was speaking in an enthusiastically overstated manner; there had already been a number of women lamas throughout Tibetan Buddhist history. Yet on the other hand, to Lama Yeshe, nothing was impossible.

His Western students slowly got used to Lama Yeshe’s language, cherishing his eccentricities. Often one could only work out what he was saying by studying the accompanying gestures and facial expressions. When the meaning became clear, though, it often had a profound effect.

Jampa Laine

Lama Yeshe worked constantly to improve his English and took lessons every Friday afternoon for more than a year from John Laine, an American. Time magazine, the only Western publication regularly available in Nepal, was a valuable source of words and ideas. “Why do Westerners care about that?” Lama Yeshe would ask as they read an article together.

John Laine: “I was very serious. I was reading Evans-Wentz’s books on Tibetan Buddhism and was full of questions.

Lama asked me, ‘Who is Evans-Wentz?’ I explained that he was a very famous scholar. ‘What is a scholar? Has he experienced what he writes about?’ I said I didn’t know, and he replied, ‘Never listen to anyone who has not directly experienced what they are speaking about. People who translate without experience (Lama pronounced this “experewence”) are just pretending wisdom.’ “I asked him to give me a Tibetan name in a private empowerment. ‘You want a full Tibetan initiation and ceremony? What for? Travel souvenir? Okay, next week!’ But he did nothing about it, so I asked again. He gave me a name—Jampa. I asked how to spell it. ‘How do I know? I can’t read or write your language. Find out for yourself!’ Then he sprinkled me with ice cold water and flung rice at me—really hard. I wondered whether he was deliberately mocking the ceremony or just making me pay attention.

“I preferred studying alone and told him that the Wednesday classes bored me to tears. ‘What?’ he shouted, ‘You don’t like class? What do you want? What do you want?’ He was sneering at me. I told him that I just wanted to meditate. Instantly his demeanor changed from furious to placid and he said, ‘Class is for those who think they need class. You meditate!’ When I told him that he seemed more like a wise older brother than a great teacher, he said to me, “’I am not an older brother. I am your son; you are my father.’

“I left Nepal to follow another teacher with Lama’s full blessing. He never discouraged people, but sometimes, when they had wild ideas, he’d say, ‘If you do that, you’ll go berserky!’ Then he’d roll his eyes and stick out his tongue.”

The Inji students, mainly Christians and Jews, often considered it spiritually courageous to reject their religious backgrounds, but Lama Yeshe wasn’t impressed. “Not necessary…it’s the same thing, dear. The main thing is to be kind and happy,” he would say.

Tibetan traditionalism had no appeal for Lama Yeshe either. He still went around in Zina’s polyester roll-neck “New York shirts” (in the wrong colors). She also bought him shoes and a watch. Max bought him socks and underpants. “Look what she’s given me…now she thinks I’m her husband! What am I supposed to do with these? Tibetans don’t wear underpants!”

Some of the Americans around Kopan were shocked at the way Max and Zina fought with each other about who “controlled” the lamas. They repeatedly assured Lama Yeshe that both women were unusual and that he shouldn’t think all Americans were like them. Lama responded that he knew that, that teaching them was an experiment on his part. He figured that if they could practice Dharma, then anyone could. He said that they were both very intelligent women with powerful personalities and could do much to benefit others.

Mahayana Teachings School at Kopan

Lama Yeshe with students, 1970From 1970: The First Group Ordination by Adele Hulse, Big Love author:

When he was at Lawudo, Lama Yeshe had more private time to study and meditate. Since Zopa Rinpoche was the star, he could disappear into the background. But back at Kopan Lama Yeshe was always at the beck and call of all those who came up the hill.

During Lama Yeshe’s classes, Åge Delbanco, whom Zina nicknamed Babaji, a name that he kept for life, would make beautiful embroidered Tibetan-style bags that he would sell to rich hippies. Lama Yeshe got Åge to make a big sign that read, “Mahayana Teachings School.”

Åge Delbanco: “The condition was that if you lived there you had to go to class. But for me Lama Yeshe’s most effective teachings were those I caught in a second—a look, a frown, a word. Everybody was asking for help with their problems, but he just encouraged me to go with my inner feelings. ‘I have never asked anybody what I should do,’ he told me.

“In one teaching Lama had been talking about whether or not to interfere in someone else’s affairs. Somebody asked what he would do if he saw a drunken man beating a little boy—not such an uncommon sight in that part of the world. ‘Would you interfere then?’ they asked. ‘Oh yes, I’d ask the man if he would like another drink,’ said Lama.

“Another time an American boy full of self-pity began to whine and complain about all his troubles, pouring them out one after the other. After ten minutes of this, everyone was depressed. Lama Yeshe didn’t say anything at first. Then he suddenly burst out laughing. He laughed and laughed and laughed until the whole room joined in, including the American boy. Later, the boy said that all his problems seemed to have suddenly disappeared.

“We often went for walks together to discuss things. One day Lama turned up at my hut to go for a walk. I said, ‘Just let me fix the fire in the grate first.’ Lama said, ‘Let me.’ He put some sticks on and arranged the fire carefully and we left. We were away for quite some time, but when we returned, that fire was burning as brightly as when we left it. I thought, What trick is this?”

Lama Yeshe got involved in everyone’s problems. Knocking on the door of a girl sitting depressed and alone, he teased her out with, “Oh, dear, please, you have lunch with me…. I little bit lonely today.” The effect on her was magic, she felt so honored. He was very clever at making people feel that they were helping him when really it was the other way round. He regularly gave out mantras to youngsters with broken hearts, never ridiculing them. To one boy he gave a special mantra because the police had confiscated his passport. Everyone wanted to stay in Nepal forever, and visas were hard to renew. The boy said this mantra for weeks. Finally, to his great surprise and pleasure, the police refused to let him leave the country.

Zopa Rinpoche moved into a little storeroom on the upper level behind the main house, while Lama Yeshe remained in his small dark room below. Both lamas began sitting in meditation with students for an hour each evening.

 

Lama Yeshe tests Jan Willis

Geshe Rabten and Lama Yeshe, 1970From 1970: The First Group Ordination by Adele Hulse, Big Love author:

Jan Willis had a calculating, trained, academic mind. Other people were clearly besotted with Lama Yeshe, but she wondered if there might not be other lamas who were even better. One day Lama Yeshe told Jan to take the next level of her teachings (calm abiding, or shine practice) with Geshe Rabten in Dharamsala. “He is a very wise teacher; he is wisdom incarnate,” Lama told Jan. “You shouldn’t have any trouble because you can speak Hindi and travel easily. You go straight there, now.”

But Jan did not go straight there; she dallied awhile in Varanasi. When she finally arrived in Dharamsala, Geshe Rabten turned his big powerful face toward her, pointed his finger, and began to yell. “He was like a mountain on fire,” said Jan. She understood enough of what he said to realize that he was accusing her of not doing exactly what Lama Yeshe had ordered—that is, coming directly to Dharamsala. “He didn’t want to know my name or hear my story. He just wanted me to know I was there to study, had arrived late, and this was serious. I fell totally in love with him.”

Six weeks later, walking up Kopan hill at dusk, Jan Willis looked up to see Thubten Yeshe looking down at her, a disgusted expression on his face. Having made eye contact he turned and went into his room. “I felt bad as I entered,” she said. “I was about to make the usual respectful three prostrations when Lama turned and threw another dreadful tirade in Tibetan at me. Suddenly it struck me that there was absolutely no difference between these lamas, that they had exactly the same things to teach, and that Lama had sent me on this long trip just to find this out, to prove to me that with my critical judgmental mind maybe I was not so smart after all. My arrogance just crumbled. I fell forward on all fours, crying and begging him to please accept me as his disciple and to forgive me for measuring him against Geshe Rabten. That moment sealed my relationship with Lama Yeshe. I saw that his wisdom was as vast as his compassion.”

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