The seventh Kopan meditation was organized slightly differently than previous courses. Since the attrition rate of the sixth course had been so severe, Vens. Chötak and Pende conducted pre-course interviews with everyone who registered for the course; they provided thorough orientation into the course discipline aimed especially at newcomers so they would know ahead of time what they were signing up for. In addition, once the course got going, there were actually two parallel courses running simultaneously. While the more advanced students, those who had already attended a couple of meditation courses, were receiving teachings on the lam-rim preliminary practices, or Jorchö, from Lama Zopa Rinpoche, Dr. Nick was guiding the new students in the basic lam-rim teachings. “So I was all disgruntled, being left to handle the new students while my peers were getting advanced teachings!” Nick recalled many years later.
Halfway through the seventh meditation course Lama Yeshe arrived at Kopan to a traditional welcome of the eight auspicious symbols drawn in white chalk on the forecourt. Everyone lined up to greet him with incense, flowers, and khatas as he stepped down from Mummy Max’s Jeep. Despite the rest in Mussoorie his senior students had never seen Lama looking so unwell. He was gray, breathing heavily, and looked uncomfortably bloated—all symptoms of his heart condition. But slowly the puffiness subsided and once more he looked golden and shiny. “Lama is invincible,” his students told themselves. “He’ll be fine.”
As a follow-up to the many tests Lama Yeshe had had while in the United States, a letter arrived from the chief resident at Memorial Hospital in Wisconsin, Dr. Frank Ryning, confirming his diagnosis:
Lama Thubten Yeshe has severe rheumatic heart disease. This means that one of his heart valves is deformed due to severe scarring of the valve. This valve normally prevents blood from flowing back into the heart from the aorta, the main channel through which blood is distributed to the rest of the body. However in Lama Yeshe’s case, deformity of the valve impedes blood flow out of the heart into the aorta. The patient can have no complaints even with severe obstruction, but once symptoms begin to appear the prognosis is grim, with most patients dying within a relatively short period of time.
Dr. Ryning suggested replacing the damaged valve with an artificial one, a low-risk operation, followed by a lifetime of anticoagulant medicine to be checked every six weeks. But Lama would have none of it.
The students who knew about Lama’s health problems took over a number of secretarial and administrative jobs in order to give him more time to rest. Lama scoffed at their concern. “Since a long time Western doctors have said I’d be dead three years ago but they know nothing of psychic energy and this magical illusory body. No, you please tell everyone not to worry about me. I’ll be here for a looooong time!” Still, some noticed that when Lama laughed, he would clutch his side, so now they hesitated to tell him funny things.
In an effort to protect his health some of Lama’s senior students decided to limit access to him. This did not endear them to newer students. However, if Lama really wanted to see someone he would simply run into them in the garden or on a path. No one could stop him doing that.
“Lama is really buddha, you know,” whispered one devoted student to George Churinoff. George, a graduate in astro-physics from Massachusetts Institute of Technology and a teacher at the esteemed Choate School, was a newcomer at Kopan.
“I thought, ‘Ah, give me a break! Lama Zopa is the real one here. Who is this Lama Yeshe guy?’” George recalled. “The cult of adoration surrounding him revolted me. Once when Lama walked by me, I said, ‘It’s a nice day,’ and he replied, ‘Thank you, dear,’ and I thought, ‘What do you mean? Did you make the day?’ I was really negative.”
One day when one of the course participants was speaking with Lama Yeshe in his room, Lama Zopa came in, fell to his knees, and started to pray. For the benefit of that student Lama pointed toward himself and said, “Dorje Chang,” indicating that Rinpoche was seeing him in the aspect of Dorje Chang. (“Who is Dorje Chang?” a student once asked him. “The biggest buddha, dear,” Lama replied.) Some students reported that they had seen Rinpoche making offerings to Lama Yeshe with tears running down his face. At other times he would not raise his eyes to look at Lama at all. Lama Yeshe was often heard speaking brusquely to Rinpoche; at the same time he also told students that Rinpoche was one of the most highly evolved beings on this planet. Lama Yeshe addressed Lama Zopa as “Kusho.” This term is generally translated from the Tibetan as “your honor” or “your worship,” and is how Tibetans commonly address monks and others of higher rank in society. These translations, however, in no way capture the clear warmth and affection expressed when Lama Yeshe addressed Rinpoche in that way. Lama actually told one student that compared to Rinpoche, he himself was just a water buffalo. And late at night, when the two lamas were alone together, all that students ever heard was an indescribable cascade of their laughter pouring out across the hill, like two buddhas in total bliss.
Philippe Camus turned up with his friend Joseph. Lama Zopa asked Joseph to tell everyone his story. It seems that he had been profoundly affected by Lama Yeshe during an earlier course and had departed with the notion that having met him, he could now do anything. What Joseph wanted most of all was to become a famous hairdresser. This he had achieved, having acquired a glamorous salon in New York filled with celebrity customers. “Ah, this is good karma!” he thought. But then things started to go wrong, very wrong. Money disappeared. One day he was stabbed in the street. In a final attempt to reinstate his fortune Joseph sailed a yacht loaded with hashish into American waters, where it ran aground on a reef and was seized. Joseph’s celebrity attorney got him out of trouble but he realized that his good karma had run out. “I’ve got to get back to Yeshe! That’s where good karma comes from!” he told himself. So here he was again, soaking it up. Lama Zopa found Joseph’s story very funny.
During the last ten days or so of the seventh meditation course, Lama Yeshe gave occasional teachings to the students on the theme of “Death, Bardo, and Rebirth.”
From Lama Yeshe’s lectures during the seventh Kopan meditation course, 1974:
After death we do not disappear. The energy of our consciousness does not disappear. Even though this physical body, these five aggregates, this physical energy, may disappear our consciousness still keeps going continuously. It doesn’t depend on whether you believe in this or not; your consciousness energy keeps going continuously. It’s natural. Energy is a natural phenomenon. So after death, your consciousness is functioning, continuously, continuously. If you are able to go beyond the ego’s wrong conceptions before you die, then you will not have to go to an uncontrolled suffering realm. On the other hand, as long as you possess an ego and its resultant wrong conceptions, you’ll automatically go to an uncontrolled situation. No one else can make you go there. Your uncontrolled circumstances are not just an idea; and no one has pushed you in that direction. It’s your own wrong-conception mind that pushes you into that uncontrolled channel.
That’s the kind of channel your mind is in now. Because you’re at the mercy of the five aggregates you get agitated. When you’re hungry or thirsty or in pain—all the information that makes you feel those things comes from these five aggregates, from this body. So the aggregates give so much information to your mind, which is in the “uncontrolled-situation” channel. Your own wrong-conception mind clung to this kind of body, and as a result you were born into an uncontrolled condition. You yourself put your mind into this kind of channel. Nobody else did it for you.
Until that uncontrolled energy is exhausted, you have to go through this cycle of death and rebirth. So after death we have an uncontrolled rebirth, maybe in a samsaric realm similar to where we are now. At present we are in a place where we can experience samsaric pleasure, aren’t we? We experience some samsaric happiness in this uncontrolled rebirth. But in another uncontrolled rebirth, we might be reborn as an animal or in what we call hell. But hell doesn’t mean a situation that goes on forever or a place that you can never come back from, which is how Westerners understand it. Hell is not a permanent state. It is also not something outside of us that we have to deal with, such as stones or a jungle. Hell is consciousness. The hell environment manifests from your consciousness, from your negative projection. Thus, the way you feel is your reality. Hell is not a place that is waiting for you, where you go down, down, down. It is also not a place where someone else puts you. When your consciousness is ready, you experience a certain impression from your environment. At that time, for you, hell is existent.
For example, from among all of us who are sitting here in this tent, there are some who feel that this tent is like hell and others who experience a good vibration, perhaps even a sense of bliss. These latter persons who are having a positive experience have clean clear vision and wholesome thoughts rather than an agitated mind. So even among those who are here, some are already in the hell realm. Yes! They’re already in a hell realm.
How can you distinguish a hell realm from the human realm? Normally we say that a hell realm is indicated by unusually extreme suffering, that is, suffering that is far beyond normal human suffering. You understand? The normal types of human suffering include the suffering of rebirth. During one’s lifetime, there is also the suffering of sickness, which is actually conflict that manifests through the body. And finally, there is the suffering of death. Rebirth, disease and death—these are the general human sufferings. We are all familiar with these. But the nature of hell is extreme suffering that is far greater than the usual human sufferings. Despite its intensity, that state is also impermanent. It does not last forever and is not static and unchangeable. When the energy for that state of consciousness is finished, then another reaction arises. If it didn’t then you would be suffering there permanently.
If you experience this tent as a hell realm, it is your schizophrenic, foggy mental projection that creates that experience. The experience does not arise from your belief. No matter whether you intellectually believe that this is a hell situation or not, for you the experience still comes, doesn’t it? It comes naturally. If you ask someone who is having this experience, “Do you believe this situation is like hell?” they’ll say, “I don’t know. I just know I have this kind of visualization.” They are going to tell you what they feel it’s like rather than what they believe it is. You can see that this kind of suffering doesn’t depend on our believing in it.