Lama Yeshe’s English Language
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.
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.