The Second Kopan Meditation Course
Word spread that Lama Zopa was about to give a second meditation course in March 1972. More students arrived at Kopan, among them two English engineers from the Rolls-Royce aeronautical division, Peter Kedge and Roy Tyson.
Peter Kedge: “With our friend, fellow engineer Harvey Horrocks, and another friend we had spent six months driving a Land Rover from Britain to Nepal, with many adventures on the way. One morning in Afghanistan, after setting up camp in complete darkness, we awoke to find that we had stopped right in front of the huge buddha statues carved into the cliffs at Bamiyan, the same statues that were destroyed by the Taliban in 2001.
“Contact with Tibetans from one of the refugee camps in Pokhara awoke my interest in spirituality and some friends introduced us to what became for a time my personal bible, Ram Dass’s Be Here Now. One night on a trek in the Solu Khumbu Everest region of Nepal, I sat in a freezing cold Sherpa lodge and by candlelight tried one of the practices in this book. This was to visualize Guru Rinpoche (which I mispronounced ‘Rinposh’) and basically inhale white light and exhale all physical and mental negativities in the form of black fog. It seemed really strange.
“After ten days in that area, where everywhere one looks there are prayer flags, mani stone, monasteries and ascetics’ caves, we returned to Kathmandu and heard about a meditation course in English and a Canadian nun at this place called Kopan. Roy and I decided to go there. Harvey went on to Australia and our other friend went back to England.
“We arrived on the first day of the course, just in time for thirty minutes of full-length prostrations led by Anila Ann. We threw ourselves on the floor in front of a huge appliqué thangka of Buddha Avalokiteshvara, the one with a thousand arms, all amid billowing clouds of incense smoke.
“There were about a dozen people there. When I saw them assembled at the first breakfast, I remember thinking that compared with Roy and me, who were pretty conservative, they looked like very seasoned travelers in their Indian, Nepali, and Afghan clothes, their braided long hair, beards and so forth. I do remember feeling at the time that I didn’t belong there, but that feeling changed.”
The ground floor of the gompa was completed just before the course began, which was held in the old gompa (the original astrologer’s house). Lama Yeshe stayed at Kopan this time, keeping one eye on the construction team and the other on the meditators. Losang Nyima ran the kitchen and Ann McNeil rushed about typing up the most recent text translations on an ancient typewriter that someone had found in Kathmandu, checking up on the builders, and attending Rinpoche’s lectures.
Zopa Rinpoche’s teaching style demanded patience. Rinpoche’s vocabulary was still quite limited and he would cough and repeat himself interminably, over and over. Massimo could follow better than most because he had spent time with Rinpoche before the course, helping him put together a thirty-page booklet in English. This did not, however, prevent him from occasionally viewing Rinpoche with some skepticism. In an aside during one session, Massimo mumbled, “What does he know?” Rinpoche looked straight at Massimo and said, “Because I have realized these teachings.” No one had ever heard him say anything so direct before about his spiritual accomplishments and—according to common knowledge—he has never been heard to repeat anything like it ever again.
Peter Kedge: “We were given two or three mimeographed sheets with information on them. I just couldn’t understand why this young monk, Zopa as we called him, would close his eyes and talk through the first ringing of the lunch bell, the second ringing of the lunch bell, the third ringing of the lunch bell…until it seemed we’d get no lunch at all. To me, we had the information on these sheets, it was time for lunch and that was it. “On one such occasion I was leaning back against the wall of the gompa and really getting very annoyed and feeling quite rebellious, having heard the lunch bell call us for at least the third time. Then Zopa opened his eyes and, looking directly at me, asked if I had been the one to make the altar and put the flower offering there that morning. And yes, it had been me—it was my turn on the roster. I suddenly realized that Zopa wasn’t just a monk but someone extraordinary, with insights I had never experienced.
“Over the next few days I came to realize that this was a person who lived what he was explaining 100 percent. It came as a shock to realize that actually, I was sitting in front of a modern-day saint. I had always thought of saints as an extinct species. Spending time with Zopa like this, and later with Lama Yeshe, made me realize that saints really exist.”
During this meditation course, the focus had been on Zopa Rinpoche, and for a long time Peter wasn’t aware that there was another lama on the hill. “One day during the lunch break I was sunbathing on the steps leading down into the room in the old house where the course was held,” Peter recalled. “A monk came out and said, ‘Excuse me,’ as he needed to pass. I said, ‘Sure,’ and moved a little. He said, ‘Thank you so much.’ I couldn’t imagine why he was really thanking me, but he beamed and I felt a radiance from him. That was Lama Yeshe. A few days later, Anila Ann, who was in many ways my mentor during that course and subsequently, said to me, ‘You have to have a meeting with Lama Yeshe. You know, Lama Yeshe is the guru here. Lama Zopa is Lama Yeshe’s disciple.’ And so the first pieces were beginning to fall into place.
The planned month-long course lasted only ten days. Suddenly, Zopa Rinpoche announced that Geshe Rabten had sent a telegram. He and Lama Yeshe were to go to Dharamsala immediately for a teaching by Kyabjé Trijang Rinpoche on the Six Yogas of Naropa. Half an hour later the lamas left in a taxi and it was up to the two ordained people on the hill—Anila Ann McNeil and Jhampa Zangpo—to keep things going.
“But that’s how it was with the lamas,” said Ann. “You never knew what was going to happen next. Once I thought I’d write a book called Life with Lama, but it took me three days just to write down what happened in one day so I gave up.”
The day after the lamas left, a film crew from the American television newsmagazine 60 Minutes turned up. They were doing a feature on American hippies’ favorite overseas haunts, and Kathmandu was naturally at the top of the list. The director was keen to get the people who were wearing monks’ robes on film. “They wanted us to prostrate to the sun on top of the hill and a whole lot of other ridiculous things, so we decided not to go along with them at all,” said Ann. “I told the reporter that he might like to ask the Dalai Lama some questions instead of looking for sensational extremes.”