The Third Kopan Meditation Course
In November 1972 Zopa Rinpoche taught his third meditation course. Around fifty people attended, including Massimo Corona and his brother Luca, Piero and Claudio, Paula Koolkin, and Peter Kedge. Advertising flyers appeared in Kathmandu cafes such as the Camp Hotel, where Marcel Bertels, a serious Dutch lad from a conservative Catholic family, had just met a French-Canadian, Nicole Couture. They both decided to do “the course,” as it was now called.
An Australian couple—Nick Ribush, a doctor, and Marie Obst, a nurse—also heard about the course and went up to Kopan to check things out. On the notice board they found advertisements for Lama Zopa’s month-long course, costing 300 rupees, as well as the Burmese teacher Goenka’s ten-day vipassana meditation course, for 100 rupees. “Let’s do the short one,” said Marie. After a full Catholic upbringing she was more interested in shedding religion than acquiring an alternative one. But Nick was “looking” and they booked into the longer one.
Twenty-six-year-old law graduate Helly Pelaez, the only child of a prominent Spanish cardiologist from Granada, was definitely looking. Running into Steve Malasky and his mother in Amala’s, Boudhanath’s only restaurant, she heard about the course and subsequently attended an early group interview with Lama Yeshe. “Why do you want to do the course?” Lama asked.
“I said I didn’t know if I could even do it,” said Helly. “According to him, everybody could, even animals. I thought him strange and was glad he wasn’t the one teaching.
“While I was walking back down to my room in Boudha, I started to feel funny, like someone was with me in my mind, working on it, stronger and stronger. Back in my room I then spent the two most horrible days of my life. I cried non-stop. The fact is I’d had lots of fights with my parents and led a very unstable life. Coming to India was a last resort for me. I had decided that if this course didn’t change things for me, I was going to kill myself. A week before it began, I moved up to Kopan. Lama Yeshe had gone to Dharamsala and I thought, ‘Good, I don’t want to see him.’”
Nick, Marie, Helly, and an English girl, Suzanne Lee, walked up to Kopan together. On the way they encountered Anila Ann—bald, robes tied round her long skinny flanks, working like a ditch digger at a trouble spot in the road. From the hill they were able to look down into a magical valley carved into terraced rice paddies with two-storey ochre colored houses hedged with roses. Chickens clucked in attics, chilies dried on roofs and were laid out in neatly swept forecourts. Dogs barked incessantly and children called across the fields: “Babuuuuuuuuuu! Didiiiiiiiiiii!” Hindu puja bells tinkled, incense wafted on the air, and old men puffed on bidis (hand-rolled Indian clove cigarettes) in the shade of ancient trees. Winding through this scene ran a rutted dirt road that became a rough track, from which branched little paths like rivulets, some of which led to the top of Kopan hill.
Here they came, the fortunate traveling children of the world’s middle classes, toting their backpacks, super down sleeping bags, toilet paper, and patented antibiotic medicines. They carried copies of Hermann Hesse’s Siddhartha, Baba Ram Dass’s Be Here Now, and well-thumbed copies of Lama Govinda’s The Way of the White Clouds. The Kopan course was becoming the place to be even though Kopan had no electricity and all the monastery’s water had to be carried up the hill from a spring 150 feet below the gompa in two big Nepali biscuit tins dangling from a yoke balanced across the coolies’ shoulders. The chief water carrier was a cheery Nepali, Bir Bahadur.
Hashish was still legal in Nepal, but while some occasionally slipped down the hill for a chillum or two, most did the course straight, beginning to end. Blotting paper tabs of LSD were carefully tucked away.
Everyone was given a copy of the cyclostyled notes that Massimo Corona, Anila Ann, and others had prepared from the first two courses. These were now neatly arranged into a folder and given an extensive title similar in length to those of the traditional Sanskrit and Tibetan scriptures: The Wish-Fulfilling Golden Sun of the Mahayana Thought Training: Directing in the Shortcut Path to Enlightenment. This was one of the first lam-rim (or “stages of the path”) teachings to appear in English.
The popular view that Buddhism was not really a religion was somewhat undermined by Lama Zopa Rinpoche’s monastic demeanor and the fact that quite a few prayers were recited, regularly. Nevertheless, the principles of lam-rim are universal and adjustable to any society at any time. This is, perhaps, their most magical and fascinating characteristic.
Zopa Rinpoche’s teaching plan during this course was to concentrate on the hell realms. On and on, day after day there was talk of hell realms and still more hell realms, all in Rinpoche’s halting English, punctuated by frequent pauses and long silences. It is no coincidence that Rinpoche’s name, zopa, means patience.
Most of the students present did not realize that during those long silences Rinpoche meditated deeply. When he did speak, to the untrained ear Rinpoche sounded as though he were simply repeating himself. In actuality, each time he addressed his subject matter, he did so from a slightly different angle, thereby allowing his listeners to enter more and more deeply into the experience he was describing. Westerners were used to receiving information in a more linear fashion and they were often looking for something pre-packaged, some spiritual insight they could swallow whole. Rinpoche’s style required them to stop, listen, and turn over in their minds what they were hearing. Those who related to Rinpoche’s teachings as if they were listening to a university lecturer could easily become frustrated by his seemingly endless repetitions. However, those who followed what he was saying as if they were being led through a guided meditation—which, in fact, they were—found his style of teaching remarkably effective for their minds and often deeply moving.
A few students escaped the course on a full moon night to attend the legendary acid parties at Swayambhu. One New Yorker returned the next day literally trembling, having experienced hell realms during his trip in all the vivid detail that Lama Zopa had just spent several days describing.
Some who attended were irritated by the course, others inspired. Marcel Bertels took to it like a duck to water and was soon meditating even during the session breaks. College graduates happily prostrated themselves over and over and chanted mantras as if they had been saying them all their lives. The more excitable claimed they saw lights and had visions. Maybe they did. During the breaks, everyone except Marcel chatted and gossiped. During the lectures that followed, Zopa Rinpoche would tell them what they had been talking about. They were convinced he was clairvoyant. The whole experience felt very close, magical, and powerful.
Once again Lama Yeshe returned quietly to Kopan sometime around the middle of the meditation course. None of the new students even knew he existed, until one day Anila Ann asked Nick Ribush if he would attend to his leg. A cut had become infected. “I was told that he had a heart problem, so I thought it best to give him a penicillin shot,” said Nick. “However, I hadn’t tightened the syringe properly and the stuff shot out all over the place. ‘It’s okay, dear,’ he told me, ‘maybe we try again tomorrow.’ So they got more penicillin and I gave him the shot, then visited every day to change the dressings.” From then on everyone called him Dr. Nick.
Lama Zopa had been telling everyone that it was harder for a woman to become enlightened than for a man, which upset all the women. Marie asked Nick to seek Lama Yeshe’s opinion. When they came to learn that he’d told Nick, “Of course women can get enlightened!” Lama Yeshe instantly became their hero. As it turns out, this disagreement between the lamas was more apparent than real. In talking about the additional difficulties women faced in becoming enlightened, Lama Zopa was addressing in part the unfortunate, but very real, obstacles that women—especially those in patriarchal societies—must overcome if they dare to defy cultural expectations in their desire to pursue a solitary life of contemplation. Lama Yeshe addressed the issue from a different perspective. His response—that men and women had the same spiritual capacity—focused on the fact that everyone, whether male or female, equally possesses buddha-nature: the potential to achieve full enlightenment. From this point of view, there is absolutely no difference between the sexes.
At the very end of the course, Lama Yeshe gave a talk. By this time many students had heard of him, although few had seen him. It didn’t take long to work out that here was the real power behind Kopan. Before actually conferring refuge and lay precepts, Lama Yeshe spoke to the course students about the meaning of taking refuge and committing to taking any number of the five lay precepts. While he spoke, Rinpoche sat in the back of the room writing out “refuge names” in Tibetan. At the end of the refuge ceremony, Marie received the name Yeshe Khadro, and this is what she was mainly called for the rest of her life, especially by her Dharma brothers and sisters. As for Nick, he received the name Thubten Zopa, but out of his great respect for Rinpoche, he never used it. In any case, everyone was already calling him Dr. Nick, so Dr. Nick he remained. Both were very happy they had chosen to do the long course.