The Diamond Valley Course, Australia
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.