The Sixth Kopan Meditation Course
It was springtime in Nepal; the days were starting to get warmer, the weather was generally sunny and breezy, dry and dusty, while the nights were still quite chilly. The sixth meditation course began on 22 March 1974. Preparations had been going on for several weeks. The big tent behind the gompa came from army headquarters in Kathmandu and was installed at the very last minute. The army even sent Gurkhas to Kopan to help set it up.
The meditation course was well known along the hippie trail, a cool thing to do if you were spiritual—and it was definitely cool to be spiritual in the Himalayas. Nepal was a magical place to be and the wonderful views over the Kathmandu Valley could not fail to lift hearts and minds.
Harvey Horrocks, Peter Kedge’s friend from the aeronautical division of Rolls-Royce, had returned to Nepal to do the course. Yeshe Khadro managed the office. Thanks to Mummy Max asking Roger, a tall skinny Australian lad, what he did for a living, there was now some electricity at Kopan—parts of it, at least. This young electrician was thereafter known as Electric Roger.
Anila Ann led the meditation sessions and Chötak did all the shopping for the community. Lama Yeshe knew he would never waste a penny. “Lama used to call me ‘the backward Indian boy,’” said Chötak. “He knew I couldn’t possibly fit in with the sort of regime the new Sangha were into.” Losang Nyima had been sent to work at Tushita in Dharamsala as the housekeeper.
Once the course got started, Lama Zopa Rinpoche relentlessly unraveled the sufferings of existence, particularly those of the lower realms of existence—the hot and cold hells, and the realm of the pretas. Rinpoche also spoke at length on the shortcomings of seeking pleasure for oneself and the immense value of caring for others. But the spiritually cool wanted auras, astral travel, and tantric sex.
Two hundred and fifty people enrolled for the course; within two weeks over seventy had left. Lama Yeshe didn’t mind at all—he even made a comment about “junk” people. “Junk” was one of his newest words.
Many people were finding meditation to be very difficult and the group was becoming increasingly agitated. “One morning Lama called me to breakfast,” said Peter Kedge. “He made oatmeal and served it to me. I don’t know what it was but it was the most delicious oatmeal I have ever eaten in my life. After I’d finished, Lama said that I had to give a talk and tell everyone that nobody invited them to come, but as long as they are here they have to follow the discipline, follow the program, and keep the five precepts. Anyone was welcome to leave if they didn’t like it.”
By the third week of the course the tension was palpable. One day, a man stood at the back of the tent holding up his watch and calling out that it was time that Lama Zopa stopped talking. Time was never anything to Rinpoche. Some accused him of brainwashing. Just before the afternoon tea break a sudden storm erupted but ended just as quickly, leaving in its wake spectacular double rainbows in the valley below. Immediately the group tension just melted away. An hour later a bird flew into the tent and perched on someone’s shoulder.
During one meditation session several students found themselves rocking back and forth involuntarily. Someone had already asked Lama Zopa about this unusual sensation that some people experienced during meditation. Rinpoche put it down to a simple lack of control. However, this time the flowering plant on the throne was also rocking. Actually, the earth itself was shuddering. “Meditate on bodhicitta; it is very important!” Rinpoche instructed. If this was going to be the last moment in their lives, the one truly valuable act they could do was to generate the compassionate wish to be of maximum benefit to others. Then everything went dead quiet. Moments later the valley below filled with the frightened barking of hundreds of dogs and the anxious cries of villagers. Three separate earth tremors followed but no real damage was done.
Bodhicitta is a pure thought. Its essence is caring more for others than yourself. This is the opposite of the thought that always puts yourself first, the mind that thinks, “I am the most important of all.” The person with bodhicitta thinks that others are more important. This is the complete opposite of self-cherishing—you always want to sacrifice yourself in order to benefit others, to give pleasure to others, to free others from suffering, to enlighten other sentient beings.
And anybody can practice bodhicitta. It doesn’t depend on your color, caste, race, class or the way you dress. It doesn’t even depend upon your religion—even Christians, Hindus, Muslims, Jews, anybody can practice bodhicitta.
No matter what you are called, you need to develop this pure thought because with it you never give harm to either yourself or other beings; not the tiniest atom of trouble. And besides not giving even an atom of harm, bodhicitta always keeps you and others in peace. With this pure thought in mind there’s no way you can hurt others in any way. Furthermore, anything you do for the benefit of others, such as making charity, teaching Dharma and so forth, is all the more pure and sincere; these actions are pure since they’re done with the motivation of wanting to release others from problems. The more an action is pure and sincere, the more beneficial it becomes.
Bodhicitta is especially important if you’re serious about desiring world peace. People who achieve bodhicitta can never give trouble to others out of jealousy, pride, avarice or aggression because these minds come from the self-cherishing thought and bodhicitta completely eliminates it. If everybody had bodhicitta, world peace would become a real possibility. Peace doesn’t depend so much on action—giving lectures, holding conferences, building things and so forth—because if what is done is tainted by the self-cherishing thought, even though its intention is to bring world peace, it is not pure and it won’t bring peace. If an action is motivated by self-cherishing, delusion, greed or hatred it cannot be pure. Therefore it cannot benefit others that much, it doesn’t have much power to benefit. Also, it can cause complications and suffering.
Anyway, actions done out of the negative mind are not the cause of peace, not the cause of happiness. They cause only suffering for self and others because they are rooted in negativity. Peace and happiness result from positive actions; positive actions arise from a pure mind.
So, if you really want to experience peace and bring peace to everybody on earth, you should not put so much energy into developing external objects but redirect it into developed and changing the mind—your own and others’. The negative mind is the cause of turmoil and suffering. Work at eradicating this poisonous root of suffering, which reaches deep into sentient beings’ minds, and planting the healing root of happiness, bodhicitta.
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Adrian Feldmann, a doctor from Melbourne who knew all Nick’s friends, didn’t enjoy that course at all. He regularly marched off down to Boudha for steak dinners. Like many newcomers, especially the Jewish ones, Adrian was appalled by the practice of prostrating. He also suspected there was a lot of brainwashing going on. Yet every time he tried to better Lama Zopa in an argument, he got nowhere. At one point when Rinpoche was talking about the subtle aspects of death, Adrian stood up and said, “Do you mean to tell me that all those people I have certified dead were not really dead?” He was clearly outraged by the thought. Lama Yeshe had yet to make an appearance.
One day Adrian walked out in the middle of a discourse and climbed to the top of the ancient hill overlooking the gompa. “Three Nepalese children looking after their goats sat down beside me and offered me some boiled sweets,” said Adrian. “This is reality, I thought. What was going on down there in the tent, that wasn’t reality. I looked across to the gompa balcony and there was Lama Yeshe, quietly watching me. Suddenly I knew exactly what was going to happen next. Sure enough, a few minutes later he appeared at my side and looking me square in the eye said, ‘If you want power, get back into that tent.’ That really floored me because it was the Carlos Castaneda/Don Juan spiritual power thing that interested me about Buddhism. But I looked back at him and said, ‘No.’ He just turned, talked to the children for a moment, and left. That was my first meeting with Lama Yeshe,” said Adrian.
When it was time for Lama Yeshe’s talk everyone was nicely keyed up and expecting relief, insight, and laughter. Everyone sat in the tent and waited and waited. Suddenly peals of high-pitched laughter burst forth. Lama Yeshe flung aside the zen covering his face—he had crept in and sat down among the students without even one of them noticing. It reduced everyone to tears of laughter.
Adrian Feldmann was ready to do battle during the question-and-answer session. As a doctor he was not impressed with the concept of reincarnation and argued back and forth about the signs of death. Lama Yeshe insisted that death was accompanied by subtle signs that continued to manifest long after what was called clinical death. Adrian sulked. Western doctors are used to being right. When someone asked about the causes of schizophrenia, Lama Yeshe said that these lay in confused messages received in one’s childhood, leading to an inability to make decisions, heightened sensitivity, and paranoia. Suddenly Adrian was impressed. He had recently worked in a psychiatric hospital and shared exactly that view—one also held by the famous British psychiatrist, R. D. Laing.
“What would you know about it?” called one student aggressively from the back. “Are you speaking from experience?” Lama put his hands together in prayer and leaned forward. “Of course, dear, how else would you like me to speak? From a book?”
A highly qualified biologist then asked several complex questions about sentience in plants. She had stories of cacti traveling, grieving, and showing signs of pleasure. Surely if an ant was sentient, weren’t plants sentient, too? Because Lama Yeshe’s English was so basic her questions had to be very simply worded, which meant everyone could understand them. Lama replied that organic elemental energy is not the same as sentience. Cacti are not sentient, as they do not have the potential to reach enlightenment.
One of Lama Yeshe’s favorite teaching words was “chocolate,” which signified to him all that was delicious and pleasurable, even blissful, in life. For example: “Enlightenment is not just chocolate at the end, in a lump. It is chocolate, chocolate, chocolate all the way!”