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The Seventh Kopan Meditation Course

Lama Yeshe at Kopan, 1974From 1974: Introducing Adamantine Being (Vajrasattva) by Adele Hulse, Big Love author:

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.

 

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The Diamond Valley Course, Australia

The gompa at Diamond Valley, 1974From 1974: Introducing Adamantine Being (Vajrasattva) by Adele Hulse, Big Love author:

Nick Ribush’s old friends, Tom and Kathy Vichta, together with a team of students, had worked for eight months preparing for this course. It was to be held on an open piece of land out in the bush situated beside a pretty creek near the Vichtas’ small farm in Diamond Valley, which was in southeast Queensland. Pete Northend appeared just in time to build a small two-roomed cabin for the lamas out of mill ends lined with Styrofoam. Their cold water standpipe was the most sophisticated plumbing on site. The only hot water available came from a 44-gallon drum suspended over a fire.

After arriving in Sydney with the lamas, Anila Ann had immediately traveled to Diamond Valley to make sure everything was ready. Two hundred people turned up for the thirty-day course, and despite certain physical discomforts, the dropout rate was remarkably low. A big marquee sat above a tent city like a scene from the gold rush era. There was a “main street” and little clusters of tents tucked into gullies here and there. The kitchen tent had been set up beside the creek and tree trunks dragged into a semi-circle to serve as seating. The cuisine was rigidly purist—a macrobiotic diet of brown rice, vegetables, tofu, and miso,
all washed down with soy bean coffee and alfalfa tea.

Out in the tent city however, secret cakes were shared in the dark, cheeses were stashed away, and real coffee was brewed in out-of-the-way gullies. A few minor fights even broke out over sweet biscuits.

A local farmer, Ilse Lederman, decided to attend the course. At their first meeting Lama Yeshe told her that he had been a nun in his previous life and had a particular fondness for nuns. Ilse didn’t know what to make of that, but some years later she was ordained in the Theravadan tradition as Ayya Khema; she eventually wrote many books and became one of the best-known Buddhist nuns in the world.

Ilse’s husband, Gerd Lederman, provided a very special service: Every day he disposed of the contents of the portable lavatories.

The course followed the usual rigorous Kopan timetable. Everyone struggled to sit still on the plastic covered straw, which squeaked every time someone moved.

Yeshe Khadro, however, moved not an inch. YK’s mother lived nearby and Lama took time out to pay her a visit. “Marie was so happy and shining that I no longer worried about her being a Buddhist nun,” said Corrie Obst, a Catholic. “Lama Yeshe came to lunch and afterward he put one of those white scarves around me. It’s a funny thing but when my husband had died a few years before, my whole world had collapsed. When he gave me that scarf, all the worry and stress I’d been living with seemed to leave me. It never did come back,” she said.

Pete Northend had arrived in Australia with his Scottish friend from Kopan, Colin Crosbie, and another couple. It had been a long wild hippie ride that had ended in a confrontation with a female immigration officer in Singapore, where long hair on men was forbidden. “We all knew about the rules in Singapore so I tried to hide as much of it as I could by tying it up,” Pete described, “but she noticed it. So I lied, I said it was for religious reasons. She put ‘suspected hippie in transit’ on my passport and an armed guard escorted me onto the ship. But I kept my long hair.

“When the lamas arrived at Diamond Valley, Anila Ann asked me to draw their water. I didn’t really want them to see me because I just knew they would be right on my case. I crept up to their house very quietly. Well, Lama Yeshe was onto me in a flash. ‘Shing zö! How was your trip?’ he asked. I told him it was okay but that I’d had a bit of a problem with my long hair. ‘Well, if you have an attachment problem with your hair I can fix it very quick! I can chop it off!’ I knew I was attached to my hair and I felt bad about lying in Singapore so I said, ‘Okay, cut it off.’ Well, he absolutely massacred it. That same day five other people tried to even it up and in the end I had no hair at all. I looked ridiculous!”

Distracting love affairs were not unusual during courses. One student who had already attended several courses fell head over heels in love with a girl attending the course. It was love at first sight for him and he fondly imagined she felt the same. Unable to concentrate on Lama Zopa’s teachings, he went to see Lama Yeshe. “He listened patiently as I described how perfect, how psychic and magic my relationship with this girl was. Then he said, ‘Right now, dear, your mind is 100 percent deluded. She’s no different to this,’ and he tapped the Styrofoam wall lining. ‘You’re 100 percent deluded!’ I was annoyed by this and got up to leave. Suddenly he leapt off the bed, pinned me to the chair and, clamping his right hand on to my shoulder, stood over me, mumbling and blowing onto the crown of my head while vigorously rubbing up and down my spine with his left hand. It worked, because all my totally disturbing thoughts about this girl just died down. I was able to put them on hold until the end of the course.”

Lama Yeshe knew all about his students’ love affairs, about the chocolate stashes and their drug-taking. One day some of the wilder ones dropped some LSD and disappeared into the bush. “All of a sudden we looked up to see Lama Yeshe ahead of us skipping along from rock to rock and waving, not showing any displeasure or censure.”

Hank Sinnema was unsure if he wanted to remain at the course. “I skipped the teachings one day and was strolling around the bush when I spotted Lama Yeshe ahead of me. As he approached I started to feel apprehensive. He must have sensed this because he stopped and just stood looking at me. From his eyes beamed such a stream of love and compassion that my heart opened and I just felt transformed. To me he looked just like Saint Nicholas, from my Dutch childhood.” Running into people when they most needed it was part of Lama’s special magic.

The lamas took a day off to go to the beach in Tom Vichta’s van. Everyone got out to enjoy the view from the cliffs, but Lama Yeshe ran straight down to the water’s edge, hitched up his robes and waded in, splashing about with delight. He cupped the water in his hands and washed his face, leaping back in surprise at its saltiness. He had glimpsed the ocean in Calcutta and America but this appears to have been his first close encounter with it.

The ocean did not have the same appeal for Lama Zopa. He sat down to meditate against a tree, his back to the view, saying prayers for the sea creatures. No amount of encouragement would persuade him to stop and play. Lama was all for buying bathing shorts and diving in, but it was a Sunday and in those days that meant that all the shops were shut.

Peter Nelson was nineteen years old when he went to Diamond Valley. “One night I had an interview with Lama Yeshe. While I was waiting it started to rain, so I crawled under their little cabin to keep dry. I could hear Lama Yeshe walking around above me. From Lama Zopa’s room I could just hear his mala scraping the floor as he said mantras. During Rinpoche’s first teaching I had burst out crying, so I crept over and sat right under where I could hear his mala and imagined his blessings coming down through the crown of my head. I ran out when ants started biting me.

“A door opened and Lama Zopa called me into his room, which was pitch dark. He just sat there and held my hand while I cried for twenty minutes.

“When Lama Yeshe’s visitor left, he came to Rinpoche’s room and, in that lovely way of his, said, ‘You wanted to see me, dear?’ I had two questions: What was the difference between Buddha and Krishna? ‘None,’ he said. And how do I find my guru? He opened his eyes wide. ‘Dear, don’t you know?’ he said. ‘Lama Zopa is your guru.’”

Having the lamas in Australia and attending a meditation course among the gum trees was just too wonderful. On sunny days Lama Yeshe would lounge luxuriously on his tiny verandah, resplendent in a vivid cerise kaftan. One very hot day, a number of dedicated students met together and decided to build a permanent Australian center. That same afternoon, while everyone else was in the tent with Rinpoche and Lama Yeshe was alone in his little cabin, a bushfire broke out in the valley. Somebody had the presence of mind to hit the big dinner gong. Everybody rushed out to see fire rapidly approaching the cabin. “Quick, Lama!” they shouted, banging on his door. “Get out now! The fire is coming this way and your cabin is lined in plastic! It will go up like a bomb!” Lama just laughed at them. He told his frantic students that the fire was an auspicious omen indicating that the new Queensland center would grow very quickly. The fire stopped a hundred meters from the cabin. Lama Yeshe never even came out of his room to watch. Rinpoche just continued teaching.

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