New York, New York
In July 1974 the lamas and Mummy Max arrived in New York and presented themselves to Dr. Shen, with many gifts. Max hadn’t been back to the States since 1958. While in New York she stayed downtown with her sister. The Solicks arranged for the lamas to stay in a friend’s flat that was located not far from their home in Brooklyn.
Their hostess offered them her floor. Lama Zopa Rinpoche promptly set up his shrine on top of his sleeping bag and did pujas and meditations, just as at Kopan. This accommodation was not appropriate for the lamas but there were no complaints, even when Lama Yeshe developed a nasty cold.
One day the pair set out alone to look for a pizza. They didn’t notice the young man sobbing into his vodka outside a Brooklyn bar, but he saw them. His Eminence Prince Ida Ratu Deva Agung Sri Acarya Vajra Kumara Pandji Pandita was not only a prince of the royal family of Bali, Indonesia, he had spent many years of his young life as a Buddhist monk and had been recognized as an incarnate teacher.
But two years earlier, the prince, known as Ratu, had abandoned everything.
“I was twenty, working in Brooklyn as a waiter and had just got a letter from my girlfriend inviting me to her wedding. I was very drunk—devastated, utterly broken-hearted and, really, suicidal. My whole world had caved in on me. I looked up the street and through my drunken haze saw two Buddhist monks walking toward me. I ran up to them because I knew I could talk to monks, at least. They asked if there was a pizza place nearby and I took them to one. I bought them pizzas and we started talking. I ended up spending nearly the entire day with them. I took refuge with Lama Yeshe and told him my sad story. He encouraged me to return to a spiritual life, and when I looked into his eyes I saw there the kindness of all my teachers.
“I told them that my lineage was that of Atisha’s teacher in Indonesia who is known in Tibetan Buddhism as Lama Serlingpa. Lama Yeshe was a very beautiful man. He put me back on the right path. The next day I began saying Vajrasattva mantra over and over and reading the bodhicitta vows over and over, for about nine months. It completely cleared my mind and I returned to Bali to resume my spiritual duties there. If I had not met Lama Yeshe at that time I would be dead by now. Nor would I have met the other lamas in my life, such as Dilgo Khyentse Rinpoche.”
Prince Ratu went on to found the King Pandji Sakti Sangha Vajrayana Buddhist Society, with centers in the USA, Ireland, Spain, and Australia.
This royal prince may well have bought the lamas their very first pizza. Some Kopan students living in New York took them out to some rather grubby cheap restaurants. The lamas could have easily fallen ill. Many students were just too young and inexperienced to realize that they needed special care, and of course Lama Yeshe only ever said, “Thank you, dear,” to everything. He even said thank you to automatic doors!
Elevators were a revelation to the lamas. “Whoosh!” said Rinpoche. “Just like rising attachment!”
Lama Yeshe told his students that he thought the best place to meditate in an American home was the bathroom—it was the only place where one could find some privacy and get away from the decor.
Lama Yeshe and Zopa Rinpoche had lunch one day with Geshe Wangyal, an important Mongolian scholar. He had been brought to New Jersey in 1955 by the Tolstoy Foundation to minister to the Kalmyk-Mongolian refugees who came to America after World War II. The lamas then flew to Wisconsin to see Geshe Lhundup Sopa, Lama Yeshe’s long-time teacher, now a professor in the Buddhist Studies Department of the University of Wisconsin at Madison.
Lama Yeshe always sent Kopan students in the region to see Geshe Sopa. One of these students joined them for lunch. “They were having a really good time together,” he said. “Geshe Sopa sat on the floor for the meal so Lama Yeshe tried to scrunch himself down even lower, which meant that Rinpoche had to just about lie flat in order to be lower than both of them.”
While in Madison Lama told his old teacher about his heart problems. Some doctors had recommended surgery, but Lama didn’t like the idea. However, he agreed to return to Wisconsin for tests after his tour, which was to begin in Nashville, Indiana. Louie-Bob Wood, a local bookshop owner and student of the lamas, had arranged for them to teach there.
Louie-Bob’s introduction to the lamas was very much out of the ordinary. Several years earlier, she had just moved to Nashville, where she had opened a psychic and occult specialty bookshop. One night in May 1968, while talking with her husband in front of their TV, which was turned off, he suddenly pointed to the set, saying, “Look!”
From that evening forward Louie-Bob told this story many times: “On the blank screen, clear as a bell, was the image of a monk,” she said. “First he looked at me then he turned and looked at Don. He had the most intense eyes we had ever seen. His look seemed to tell us that he not only knew precisely what we were thinking at that particular moment, but also everything we had ever thought. At the time we didn’t exactly go around telling everyone about this incident.
“Five years later a series of coincidences led me to the fifth meditation course at Kopan. I was full of anticipation. Zopa Rinpoche walked into the tent, having just shaved his head. Suddenly, I realized that his was the face I had seen on the TV! I waited another two weeks before telling him about it. He listened intently then said, ‘It was for a reason.’ I gave him a little sterling silver cross I had worn for years.
“At this stage I still hadn’t seen Lama Yeshe, until one evening I walked into his candle-lit room. The impact of it overwhelmed me—he just filled the room. ‘I suppose each person who comes to see you believes that fate has brought them here,’ I said to him. ‘Yes, yes,’ he said. Then he reached into his shirt and produced my little silver cross. Suddenly, I realized what was going on, that the image of Rinpoche I had seen on the television screen had been sent by Lama Yeshe. ‘You sent him,’ I said.”
Now the lamas had arrived in her home, ready to teach their first course in the West. “The morning after the lamas got here, people just began walking up our driveway,” said Louie-Bob. “Around seventy came just to see these Tibetan monks. None of them had been invited, though a lot of people knew the monks were coming. They just sat down in my yard, many with gifts of food for them. Zopa Rinpoche gave a talk from the porch. The next day Lama Yeshe spoke to them in the living room.”
Afterward, Lama Yeshe went up to a small bedroom and everyone lined up on the stairs and, indeed, all through the house in order to have a fifteen-minute interview with him. ‘”I asked him to bless my family signet ring,” recalled George Propps, a local realtor. “I couldn’t think of anything else. Afterward I thought I should have asked about my future, but that would have been ridiculous. I knew this wasn’t about fortune-telling.”
“I remember Lama Zopa was simply fascinated by our dishwasher,” said Louie-Bob. “He told me there were ‘too many’ kinds of cereal in the local food store. Also, one day he tasted ice cream—very gingerly. Lama Yeshe and my husband, Don, sat on a bench in town playing with plastic bubble bears. You squeeze them and bubbles float up from their heads,” she recalled fondly.
It was here at Louie-Bob’s that the lamas founded their first Western center, naming it the Bodhicitta Education Research and Retreat Center for Developing Human Potential.