Life Among the Mount Everest Centre Monks
By 1974 Michael Losang Yeshe, then nine, had spent almost half his life at Kopan. Olivia, his mother, now lived in Japan. One day Michael received a parcel from her. “Lama Yeshe heard about it and came to my room,” said Michael. “‘Where is the parcel?’ he asked. ‘Open it.’ He looked inside and handed me a set of colored pencils. ‘These colors, these are for everyone, not just you.’ He pulled out a shirt and underwear. ‘These you can wear.’ Then he saw the fancy Mickey Mouse watch. ‘You’re too young for a watch; you don’t know how to tell time. This for me. I keep for you.’ If I had kept it, I would only have lost it, or traded it for comics or something a few days later. He never did give it back,” said Michael.
Very occasionally the boys were given cash offerings at pujas. When Michael’s father, Yorgo, married a Nepali woman and moved to Kathmandu, he sponsored a big puja at his house. All the boys there received 100 rupees each. When they returned to Kopan Lama took all the rupees from them. They didn’t need money—Kopan did. Yorgo also donated buffaloes to Kopan so the monastery wouldn’t have to buy milk, and he often drove Lama around town on errands.
Lama Yeshe could shift at the drop of a hat from acting the clown to being extremely wrathful. Every inch the abbot, he would walk up and down the rows of small boys in the gompa, making sure they paid attention and not hesitating to discipline them with judicious use of his heavy mala where required.
“I was a naughty one,” said Tenzin Dorje Rinpoche, also known as Charok Lama. “I was lazy and he beat me on the shoulders with his big mala or with a stick. The big wooden malas really hurt. Many boys cried when Lama hit. The Western view is that hitting is bad, but Lama’s motivation and his way of hitting were different. Somehow I was always happy after he hit me. Of course, there were some boys who really didn’t want to be in the monastery and who didn’t like Lama either. But Lama always told us to have an open ear, to listen to everyone for a good education. That way we would develop bigger ideas, which are more beneficial.”
Before the Kalachakra in Bodhgaya the boys had had classes only in the mornings and then had played in the afternoons. But after the Kalachakra Lama Yeshe had them working in the gardens in the afternoons, instead of just making noise. Gardening included lugging water up from the spring, an endless and arduous task but exactly what they would have been doing had they stayed in Solu Khumbu. Lama did not want them to waste any time. Now they had fresh milk, and Lama Pasang built a chicken coop so they could have eggs, too.
The Mount Everest Centre population was constantly changing as new boys arrived and others left. They included Sherpas, a few Tibetans, and Manangis, boys from the Manang Valley, which lies close to the Tibetan border north of Pokhara. At one stage there were more Manangis at Kopan than Sherpas, but over time many of these left.
Everyone on the hill knew that Lama Yeshe took a nap every afternoon after lunch. “For his heart,” they said. It was also the only privacy he could count on during the day. “One day when we were all making a lot of noise in front of the office after lunch, he came down and went whack! whack! whack! getting three boys at a time with his big bamboo stick,” said Michael Losang Yeshe. “We were always told to keep quiet at that time. Once an urgent message arrived after lunch and some boys were sent to his room. When they opened the door and peeked in he wasn’t asleep at all, but sitting up surrounded by texts, studying.”
Although this time after lunch was generally called Lama Yeshe’s “rest time,” his students came to know in later years that this was actually Lama’s daily meditation time, when he meditated on the clear light. Some years later, Lama Zopa Rinpoche reminisced, “After lunch each day Lama usually went to rest for one or two hours. Wherever Lama was, in the West or in the East, Lama tried to take time to rest. In the beginning I didn’t realize what Lama was doing and thought it was just like our sleep; then gradually I felt that it was actually a meditation session. In the general view, Lama was continuing to meditate on clear light in order to develop that realization. People who didn’t know that Lama was a great hidden yogi, a great tantric practitioner, might believe that what Lama calls “rest” or “sleep” is the same as an ordinary person’s sleep.”
Mummy Max was perfectly cast in her role. Whenever her Jeep was seen coming up the hill, word flew around, “Mummy’s coming! Mummy’s coming!” The boys would rush to meet her in the courtyard, knowing that she would have a treat for them.
Their first picnic with Max was like a trip to another planet. “She sent two beautiful clean buses from Lincoln School for us,” said Michael Losang Yeshe. “We had never seen anything like them in our lives and couldn’t believe they were for us to ride in. Lama Yeshe came, too. We went to Parphing, two hours away, and had a picnic on a nice big open plateau. Mummy had paper cups and paper napkins for us. We had never touched anything like paper cups…and napkins!”
Parphing, located southwest of Kathmandu city in the hills surrounding the valley close to the Hindu pilgrimage site of Dakshinkali, is a popular and very sacred Buddhist pilgrimage site. There are many temples, shrines, and holy places in and around Parphing, many of which are connected to various female Buddhist deities, just as Dakshinkali is devoted to the wrathful female Hindu deity, Kali. It is said that many women saints and meditators practiced nearby.
In Parphing is an important Vajrayogini temple, built in the eleventh century, which is where many Vajrayogini lineage holders and realized practitioners did retreat and gained realizations over the centuries. The great mahasiddha Naropa himself resided there not long after the temple was built. In the eighth century, long before Naropa’s time, the great Guru Padmasambhava had stayed in Parphing for some time after leaving Tibet. There, together with his consort Sakyadevi, he attained enlightenment while retreating in Langlesho cave, high on the hillside there. One day when Padmasambhava exited the cave in an exalted state of mind, he placed his hand against the rock face of the mountain and left a miraculous handprint impressed forever in the stone, which can still be seen today.
On a hillside at Parphing, close to a spring, several bas-relief images of Tara are clearly visible in a rock, some of their features more clearly formed than others. They are said to be self-emanating—emerging from the rock by their own power. In the 1970s there was only one Tara image, but one by one new Tara images have been gradually appearing in the rock next to that spring.