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The 8th Kopan Meditation Course

Group photo, Kopan, 1975From 1975: We Need a Foundation by Adele Hulse, Big Love author:

Two hundred people turned up for the eighth course, many of them veterans of several courses already. The more long-term students were increasingly serious about learning to control their minds and stop harming others. Marcel was appointed as the course leader and Jon Landaw was requested to conduct the discussions. “Lama didn’t give me any particular instructions,” said Jon. “He just threw me in there.” Yeshe Khadro, Thubten Pemo, Sangye Khadro, and John Feuille all returned to Kopan from a three-month Manjushri retreat at Lawudo to attend the meditation course.

Adrian Feldmann came to the course from his one-room cabin in the Australian bush where he had been doing solitary retreat. During his retreat he had not seen a single person. “I’d followed Lama Yeshe’s advice and started writing him letters when questions arose, but I never finished one of them. As soon as I started writing the answers just came to me. After the retreat I wrote to Lama and asked when I could become a monk. He told me to come to the course.”

Among the new students attending this course was John Cayton, an American college student. He was one of a group of undergraduates from The Evergreen State College in Washington State, USA, who had come to Nepal to engage in individual research. Most people called him Karuna; he had been given that name by a Hindu guru a few years previously. On his first night at Kopan he dreamed of a lama bowing and smiling at him in greeting. “The next morning I was going to breakfast and I saw this lama walking by, bowing to everyone and smiling. It was Lama Yeshe; he was the one I had seen in my dream. I’d never even seen a photo of him before,” said Karuna.

Andy Weber, who was studying thangka painting in Boudhanath, had met Lama Yeshe in Bodhgaya in 1974. This was his first Kopan course. “I didn’t like the first day—those pretentious Americans with their backpacks and superdown gear and polite palaver. Everyone looked so rich and neat,” Andy remembered. “It was like being at college in the West. The day before the course started I was standing beside the gompa looking down into the valley and wondering whether to stay. I turned around and there was Lama Yeshe’s beaming face at the window. He just nodded to me, but I felt a thud of blessed energy. I knew then that I had to stay. But I thought Marcel was a pain in the neck. Sometimes I just had to go down to Boudha for a chillum.

“I got very depressed during Lama Zopa Rinpoche’s teachings. The only reason I stayed was because Lama Yeshe occasionally dropped in and gave one of his blissful talks, and because he sometimes called me to his room for a chat. His was the message we all wanted to hear. However, we also knew that we first had to walk the path Lama Zopa Rinpoche was pointing out, the same path Lama Yeshe had followed.”

Five friends from the seventh course had spent the year together in Dharamsala and had then returned to Kopan for more. “We were a wild bunch,” said Jimi Neal. Wildest of all was an intense young Italian, Stefano Piovella. “A lot of people at Kopan were very straight. They didn’t like Stefano because he was such a hippie,” said Jimi. “He spent most of the course crashed out in the front row looking totally out of it. Then every now and then he would jump up with the most amazingly profound or poignant questions. He just adored Lama Zopa Rinpoche. He told me that he was amazed at Lama Yeshe’s deep understanding of Italian psychology and culture after he had spent only two weeks in Italy.”

Some months later the somewhat unpredictable but charismatic Stefano was ordained by His Holiness the Karmapa. “Ha ha ha! You! A monk!” everybody exclaimed. “I’m glad you did it,” said Lama. “You’ll last two months.” And he did—to the day. Stefano later took ordination again, and disrobed again.

Jimi Neal was present on the day a student arrived at Kopan on a huge BMW motorbike. “Lama Yeshe might have seen one before but he certainly hadn’t ridden one,” said Jimi. “He got on it, put his hands and feet in the right places, and hunkered down as though the wind was tearing at his face. Marcel Marceau had nothing on him—he was a magnificent actor and a superb mimic.”

One person who didn’t show up for the course was the lamas’ Lake Arrowhead driver Teresa Knowlton, a devout and cheerful young girl from Seattle. Teresa had planned to take ordination and was expected to arrive at Kopan with gardening tools and a typewriter. Time magazine was one of the very few Western publications regularly available in Nepal and Lama Yeshe usually had the latest copy. One day he pointed to a paragraph about an Indian-Vietnamese man, Charles Sobhraj, who had murdered a number of young travelers and stolen their cash and passports, apparently for the sheer excitement of it. Among his victims, found drowned on a beach in Thailand, was Teresa Knowlton. “She wanted to practice Dharma,” said Lama, “but she never reached here.” The message was clear—anything can happen, so use your time well.

More new monks and nuns

Adrian Feldmann was preparing to take robes. His girlfriend was at Kopan and tried to get the lad to spend one last romantic weekend with her at the lovely lakeside town of Pokhara. “I had to check up very deeply,” said Adrian. “I took my girlfriend up to the astrologer’s hill and pointed to the North Star. ‘See that star?’ I said. ‘It never moves and the whole universe moves around it. It is the same as my determination to be a monk.’ She cried a bit and we had one last kiss and cuddle.”

Most of those seeking ordination had already received “Dharma names,” but Adrian hadn’t. He hadn’t even taken the five lay vows that were often given together with refuge. Lama Yeshe gave these vows to Adrian and to Scott Brusso, who also hadn’t yet received all five vows. Then Lama closed his eyes for a moment and gave Adrian the name Thubten Gyatso.

Elisabeth Drukier was on the way to becoming Lama’s first French nun. “I’m not sure about French people,” Lama told her, “I don’t know so many.” George Churinoff went to see Lama Zopa Rinpoche about whether to become ordained. “He told me, ‘For you it would be good.’ So that was that. I thought that becoming a monk was really the only way I could practice Dharma and I had no relationship responsibilities,” said George.

These three—Adrian, Elisabeth, and George—together with several more of Kopan’s Western students, were slated to be ordained by in Dharamsala early in 1976.

In the meantime, however, Lama Yeshe unexpectedly announced on November 17 that a preliminary rabjung ceremony would take place the very next day. This was the third group of Lama Yeshe’s students to request getsul ordination and Lama wanted to ensure that their monastic future was well planned. By receiving the eight barma rabjung vows early they would have some experience of having lived together as Sangha before committing themselves to the thirty-six getsul vows. On that day, George Churinoff, Adrian Feldmann, Elisabeth Drukier, Electric Roger, Karin Valham, Roger Wheeler, Peter Kedge, Scott Brusso, Suzi Albright, and Margaret McAndrew received barma rabjung ordination together. After the ceremony Lama told them, “From now on I am your girlfriend, your boyfriend, your mummy, your daddy, your teacher and your best friend. You have no worries. Now you have a big party!”

“We went down to the Sangha gompa, which was the big room in the old house,” said Adrian. “There was a big table of food and Lama insisted that we sing and dance and play music, all of which are alien practices for ordained people. So we got out the few cassette tapes that we still had, such as the Rolling Stones and Bob Dylan, and drank lemonade and ate biscuits. We didn’t actually sing and dance and Lama didn’t come to the party.”

Lama Yeshe gave several talks to the Sangha about how to live together as a community. He also had them give Dharma talks to each other in the evenings, with question-and-answer sessions, in this way training his monks and nuns to eventually be able to teach in the West.

 

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Miracle at Mullumbimby, Australia

Lama Yeshe on the hill, 1975From 1975: We Need a Foundation by Adele Hulse, Big Love author:

That same day, 24 October 1975, is engraved forever in the minds of Australian students Gloria and Bill Searle. At the fourth Kopan course Lama Yeshe had paid considerable attention to the Searles’ small son, Adam, and had warned them at the time that the child was reckless.

Gloria and Bill lived on a small farm at Mullumbimby in New South Wales, Australia, prime hippie country. On that day in October 1975 Adam, then six years old, was playing with his little friend, Jason, at the edge of a dam on the property. Bill was working in the herb garden just below it.

“It was about two o’clock in the afternoon,” recalled Bill Searle. “Adam and Jason were chasing dragonflies around the dam and nagging me to take them to the beach. Suddenly I heard Jason yell, ‘Come back, Adam!’ Something in the tone of his voice made me climb up there. Jason was standing knee deep in this thick brown water pointing to a flat empty space. I remember thinking very strongly that I just didn’t want to acknowledge this. I just wanted to walk away, pretend it wasn’t happening. But I stripped off and jumped in. I swam up and down that dam for I don’t know how long. Twice I had to crawl out and vomit up all the filthy brown water I’d swallowed. Little Jason just stood there, mute.

“Then I found Adam, face down in the mud under ten feet of icy cold water. I got hold of him but his little body slipped out of my grasp before I got to the surface. To make things worse, I had to get out and vomit again, because I was full of water. I went back in and got him and he was entirely dead. I wasn’t even going to attempt resuscitation.

“Then I had a vision of Lama Yeshe. I can’t describe it other than to say he was there, standing on the rise on the other side of the dam. The vision was absolutely clear and seemed completely external—outside of me. He appeared to be a little bigger than normal size but not huge. He was in robes and bathed in this golden light and was looking directly at me. It was like a reality check, because everything happening right then was pretty unreal. The message I got from him was that there was something I could do about it, that I was not unempowered.

“I immediately started doing CPR, which I’d recently learned on a building site first-aid course. By now Gloria knew what was happening and had raced off to find a telephone. We didn’t have one then. Completely out of the blue a friend arrived and took over doing mouth-to-mouth. My breathing had become pretty irregular, but I was able to keep up doing the heart massage. I felt Adam’s heart give a kick and realized he might come back. When the ambulance came we took him to a hospital forty minutes away. We had oxygen on him by this time and I just kept up working away at his heart. A doctor friend of ours happened to be on duty in the emergency room. He took us aside and said, ‘You should hope he does not live because he’s full of very dirty water, has a huge brain edema and badly damaged lungs.’ We estimated that he’d been under the water for ten minutes.”

“Everyone started praying for him,” recounted Gloria Searle. “Every church in Mullumbimby held a service for him. Two days later he was still in a coma and everyone was sure he would die. Anila Ann was visiting the town at the time and invited us to a puja they were having for Adam, but we couldn’t go. We were just too upset.

“The next day Adam woke up, pulled out all the equipment he was hooked up to and sat up. Our doctor friend told us he was completely clean and had only very slight brain damage, which might show up during adolescence. The only sign of it we ever noticed was his poor ball-handling skills. He grew up to be a healthy man and became an environmental lawyer.

“The really surprising thing about the vision of Lama was that it happened to Bill, not to me. He wasn’t a Dharma student to the same extent as I was. He hadn’t even thought about Lama Yeshe for a long time prior to that day. I heard later about a drowning incident in America and learned that the body just shuts down at certain temperatures, allowing for just enough blood to reach the brain to keep it ticking. Our dam water was pretty cold at the bottom, so I think that was it.”

Les Bayards, Switzerland

1975 Geshe Rabten in SwitzerlandFrom 1975: We Need a Foundation by Adele Hulse, Big Love author:

On September 24, three days after the seminar at Royal Holloway in Surrey, England, the lamas and Nick flew from London to Geneva. Chris and Barbara Vautier, two of the organizers of the upcoming two-week course, met them at the airport and drove them to the picture-postcard village of Les Bayards in the Jura, a canton in northwest Switzerland. The lamas had been invited to Switzerland by the Vautiers and Jamie and Isabelle Johnston. The Vautiers had rented Les Places, a beautiful spic-and-span house, for the lamas in the countryside about twenty minutes from Les Bayards.

Chris and Barbara, who had attended the third Kopan course in 1972, were interested in establishing a center in Switzerland, which already had a strong Tibetan community. Geshe Rabten, attended by Gonsar Rinpoche, had arrived there in 1974 to take up a three-year post as abbot of the Tibet Institute in Rikon, Switzerland. In view of this Lama Yeshe told Peter Kedge that he could not possibly consider opening a center in Switzerland, as that would have been arrogant and extremely disrespectful to Geshe Rabten.

The day after they arrived in Switzerland the lamas went to visit Geshe Rabten at the Tibet Institute, and then all together they went to visit Kyabjé Trijang Rinpoche who was staying close by. During this visit, Lama Yeshe asked Trijang Rinpoche to record some advice for the 120 students at Les Bayards on a cassette tape.

Åge Delbanco, who had not seen the lamas for two years, came to cook for them. “I drove them back and forth to the teachings,” he said. “Whenever we arrived for the teachings or left afterward, students would run out to surround the car. Bent over in devotion they all rushed to be the one to open the car door. Once Lama Yeshe exclaimed, ‘Ho! This guru business!’ as if to say, ‘Why can’t they just relax and be natural?’ Lama was so sweet to me then, but he treated Lama Zopa like he was a little boy. There was a lot of, ‘What are you doing! Do this! Do that!’”

Kopan students from all over Europe were thrilled to meet each other again. “For many of us it was the first time we had seen the lamas and each other for years and it presaged great things to come. After this, new centers began opening all over the continent,” said Paula de Wys. In charge of the kitchen during the course was Patricia Zenn Calaman, who would later come to be known as Bhikshuni Professor Karma Lekshe Tsomo and would become one of the founders of Sakyadita, the International Association of Buddhist Women.

The students took the eight Mahayana precepts every morning during the second week of the course. This was challenging, so Lama Yeshe came along to give everyone courage:

Good morning. We are here to engage in this exercise, to concentrate on our own beliefs. Perhaps I will explain a little why we do this.

It is very simple. We have tremendous energy from our previous experiences, both physical and mental. We are influenced too much by this uncontrolled energy. So when we try to engage in actions that put our energy in the right direction, we need to relieve that garbage energy that has been uncontrollably occupying our minds for so long. In order to actualize the Hinayana path, the Paramitayana path, or even the Tantrayana path, it is necessary to eliminate that uncontrolled negative energy that we are all too familiar with.

But we cannot do this merely intellectually. This is like feeling hungry but then denying that you have a stomach! You understand? You cannot just say, “I want to stop,” (clap) and expect it to happen. You have to understand that your mind is like a baby. You have to concentrate this positive energy into your own movement reality, your own coming and going, so that the mind automatically integrates one-pointedly and stops the mundane worldly thoughts.

Lama always said he never rehearsed his talks and never knew what he was going to say until he sat on the throne.

As the attendant Nick was in charge of all the mundane matters, such as seeing that everything ran to schedule, especially lunch. On the days when everyone took precepts, lunch was the only meal of the day and it was supposed to be over by noon. Lama often lectured in the morning on those days, and his lectures often went overtime. With five minutes to spare, Nick would discreetly remind Lama of the time. Twenty minutes later he often had to do so again, because Lama had taken no notice. One day, after Nick’s third interruption, Lama Yeshe rounded on him and said, “In Tibet when someone is being a nuisance, we do this to them!” He made a squishing gesture with his thumb. Nick stayed quiet. “When the lecture was finally over I followed Lama down the stairs,” said Nick. “My mind was just about to boil over when Lama turned, gave me a look full of real fear for my future lives and said, ‘Don’t say a thing!’ Then he walked off.” Displaying anger toward one’s guru creates very bad karma.

As promised, Judy Weitzner turned up to discuss Lama’s plans for a Tibetan organization. Later, she remembered talking with Lama about the project. “At one point I said, ‘Why stop at “International Society” for Tibetan Reality? Why not intergalactic?’ Lama thought that was a great idea. He also said he wanted to establish universities in Tibet, where scholars from all over the world could come and teach Dharma to the Tibetans. They were the ones who were missing out now,” said Judy.

Adele Hulse also attended the Swiss course. “I followed the tour down to Les Bayards and was the only other Australian there besides Nick,” recalled Adele. “Every evening there were discussions conducted in several language groups. I would walk around from group to group, not quite belonging. I saw that the French all spoke at once, the Germans made lists of words, the English were super polite and said nothing, and the Italians were extremely emotional. I thought it very funny.

“Nick invited me to come over to the lamas’ house and clean up in readiness for a short visit from Geshe Rabten. Naturally, I was thrilled. The house had been squeaky Swiss clean before the lamas moved in, but now it was untidy and the kitchen was a mess. There were splotches and burn marks on practically every surface.

“The lamas had just finished cooking a mountain of momos for Geshe Rabten and I was washing up, my hands in the sink. I didn’t notice Lama Yeshe come up behind me until I suddenly felt this massive thump, square in the middle of my back. I was stunned. It was obviously a precise strike and delivered in neither fun nor anger. In my straightforward Australian way I turned to look at him. His eyes were rolled right back in his head, his hands folded and he just kept saying, ‘Thank you, dear, thank you, dear.’ I didn’t understand at all and just went on with the dishes.

“That day Lama asked me, ‘Why do you stay in London for so long, such a dirty place? Why don’t you go back to Australia? A clean place and such good food. See your mummy.’ Soon afterward I left Switzerland knowing that my time on the road was up.”

Two days before the end of the course Lama Yeshe gave a public talk at nearby Chaux-de-Fonds. On the last day of the course Geshe Rabten gave a talk and Zopa Rinpoche gave a Tara initiation. Lama Yeshe also gave a Chenrezig initiation and played Kyabjé Trijang Rinpoche’s recorded advice to the students, which was translated by the American monk, Alan Wallace.

The Indiana Course

Geshe Sopa and Lama, 1975From 1975: We Need a Foundation by Adele Hulse, Big Love author:

From California the lamas returned to Louie-Bob Wood’s Bodhicitta Center in Indiana, Max and Wongmo accompanying them. They were scheduled to give a two-week course there starting on July 24. Louie-Bob had rented a venue this time and once again many of those attending were older people—mostly devout Christians. Definitely not hippies. In addition to the local attendees, however, there were also about twenty people in attendance who had already received teachings from the lamas. While in California, Lama Zopa Rinpoche had dictated the Yoga Meditation of Chenrezig Compassionate Wisdom to Wongmo, who had then arranged to have it printed in time for a Chenrezig initiation that Lama gave to eighty-five people at the end of the course. Rinpoche had signed the booklet “Zopa—Lama in name only.”

During the question-and-answer time a woman asked Lama if Buddha’s ultimate nature was the same as God. Lama paused in deep contemplation for a long minute before clearly replying, “Yes.” As most of those attending this course were Christians, Lama spoke often about Jesus and his qualities and even had them visualizing Jesus instead of Buddha. Two hundred people attended Lama Yeshe’s public talk at the Brown County Art Gallery on the second night of the course. At the end of the course Lama gave refuge to forty people and lay vows to thirty.

Lama told all the people who wanted to do further study to visit Geshe Sopa in Madison, Wisconsin. Several of them went directly there and became dedicated students of Lama’s long-time teacher.

Max Mathews stayed on the tour for the duration of her school holiday leave. In Nashville, Indiana, she spent time working on an innovative education project that Lama had discussed with her. Lama had told her that he believed Buddhism could be taught all around the world without using any Buddhist terms at all, and in such a way that children could learn that life is impermanent, all things are interrelated, and the path to life’s fulfillment involves exercising compassion and wisdom and applying appropriate methods. Max thought that the first thing to do was to prepare texts in order to be able to train teachers. She wrote out a program, developed concepts, and had long discussions with Lama. News of her work elicited offers from two American universities to complete a Ph.D. in educational research, but she did not accept. When the lamas left for Wisconsin, Max returned to Nepal and her job at Lincoln School. She was still the only source of support for more than fifty young Mount Everest Centre monks.

 

In Wisconsin with Geshe Sopa

Several days into the Indiana course, on July 29, because of difficulties with his health due to the Indiana summer heat, Lama Yeshe cancelled the upcoming course in New York that had been organized by Roger Jackson and Pam Percy with help from Nicole Couture. “He was obviously not well,” said Pam. “He paused every now and then as some pain passed through him, but he was more concerned about us. He wouldn’t let us leave until we were quite clear of his reasons for cancelling the New York course. He kept asking us to take care of each other.”

The upside of this was that it gave the lamas more time to spend with their precious teacher, Geshe Sopa. They traveled to Madison, Wisconsin, directly from Indiana, spending the next month there receiving teachings from Geshe Sopa on the The Great Treatise on the Stages of the Path to Enlightenment (Lam-rim Chenmo). It was also a time for Lama Yeshe to take a break from his grueling schedule and escape from the heat that oppressed him so. Because Geshe Sopa’s house was right next to the lake, it was more comfortable in summer than much of the rest of the area.

Khamlung Rinpoche, whose house was just down the road from Geshe Sopa’s, hadn’t seen Thubten Yeshe since that dreadful day at Sera in March 1959. Here in the United States the Tibetans spent long pleasant evenings dining together, Lama Yeshe doing some of the cooking. Geshe Sopa was teachings only one weekly class at the time so he had free time to spend with his old student. Meanwhile, Nick embarked on series of long bus and plane rides to Chicago, Boston, Toronto, and Gainesville, Florida, giving talks on Buddhism to raise funds for the IMI before returning to Madison.

* * *

Allyn Roberts was a psychologist and the director of one of Wisconsin’s first private clinics. In 1972 his friend, Geshe Sopa, had asked him to deliver a message to Lama Yeshe while he was traveling in India. He had been warmly welcomed by Lama and the two had enjoyed many enthusiastic conversations about the overlap of Buddhism and Western psychology in relieving suffering. They had agreed that each discipline needed to learn from and be complemented by the other. Lama asked Allyn to send him some suitable books written by Western psychologists, which he had done. Lama even suggested that they swap roles for a few months. These conversations had taken place even before the term “transpersonal psychology” entered the common vernacular and at a time when Western psychological traditions rarely focused on spiritual dimensions in their pursuit of wholeness.

Allyn had heard that after spending time at Kopan many young drug addicts had been able to kick their addiction, while in contrast, clinical approaches were having only limited success. He wanted to know how they did it. “That’s easy,” Lama Yeshe had told him. “They are hungry for nourishing food. I feed them and then it is easier for them to forgo the non-nourishing food.”

Now that Lama was visiting Madison, Geshe Sopa called Allyn saying that Lama wanted to come and see him. “Geshe-la wanted Lama to see the silo that was attached to my home, on top of which I had built a glass-walled viewing room,” Allyn recalled. “Lama arrived and darted up the inner staircase leading to the room. Geshe-la was anxious because he knew of Lama’s heart condition. Halfway up he looked back at Geshe-la and me in a laughing and mischievous way. ‘I’m fine!’ Lama said. We followed at a much less vigorous pace. In the viewing room Lama was absolutely overjoyed. He said, ‘This gives me an idea. We should build a statue of the Buddha like this, with an inner staircase surrounded by Buddhist and spiritual art objects.’ He said that our energy and spirits were raised in the process of climbing up and that most people needed some kind of physical experience. People would take with them memories and images that would assist their spiritual growth.”

Some of Lama Yeshe’s students had written to Geshe Sopa in hopes that he could persuade Lama to undergo the heart valve replacement recommended by several cardiologists. They had also written to Kyabjé Trijang Rinpoche about it. However, Trijang Rinpoche told Lama that his divinations had advised against having any operation at all. Nevertheless Lama, now forty years old, went back to the university hospital for more tests.

While he was at the hospital, a vending machine there attracted his attention. “So beautiful. Just like karma. You select something, put a coin in, and the result appears,” he said.

The upshot of this visit was that Lama agreed to be admitted for two days to have a cardiac catheterization. It was noted in the hospital documents that his date of birth (invented by Mummy Max for Lama’s travel documents) was 21 May 1935 and that he was 5′ 3″ tall and weighed 155 pounds. The procedure was performed under a local anesthetic on 10 September 1975. “They took me to that chopping place and put me on a chopping table. They showed me on TV; I could watch like a movie!” said Lama afterward. He had not been at all nervous and had cheerfully joked all the way through the procedure. The doctors were impressed.

Before leaving Geshe Sopa’s house for the hospital Lama Yeshe had given his teacher an envelope containing some money and his will. “It seemed he had already decided that it didn’t matter if he died during the operation. Of course, once you decide that, there is no problem,” said Geshe Sopa.

Dr. Nick attended the post-examination medical conference. “The doctors couldn’t understand how Lama could travel and be so active with his heart in such poor condition. One of them pointed out that he was a Buddhist monk and probably led a very sedentary life, so I was prompted to tell them how just last year he had scooted up the hill at Lawudo, which is at 14,000 feet. I’m not sure they believed me, however. A monk wasn’t going to have the same credibility as a doctor. And a doctor-monk, well… Whenever any of us students asked Lama how he coped with his heart, he always said it was the power of mantras. I didn’t tell them that.”

Geshe Sopa also attended this conference. “The doctor was very frank. He insisted that it was better to do the operation now; otherwise, if we were to wait then [his heart] would deteriorate and it could be very dangerous. Right then it was not so dangerous. I pushed him to say how long he thought that Lama could live without an operation. He said eight years,” said Geshe Sopa. But later, Lama repeated Trijang Rinpoche’s advice not to have the surgery. “If we followed the doctors, then I would already be dead; several doctors said that I should be dead. I don’t want to do that operation now. Maybe later I can come back. I’ve stayed alive a lot longer than anyone thought I could and I have so much to do. I can’t afford the recovery time that an operation would take.”

Lama’s friend Chombey also recalled discussing the matter with him. “Lama said Trijang Rinpoche told him not to have it, because it wouldn’t make any big difference. The operation would not prolong his life and not having it would not shorten his life either. But Trijang Rinpoche also made a promise to Lama. He told him, ‘As long as I live, you will be taken care of. Nothing will happen to you. I can’t do much in spreading the Dharma around and you are doing all that work. I’ll look after you while I live.’ That’s what he told Lama,” said Chombey.

The Lake Arrowhead Course

Lama Yeshe, Lake Arrowhead, 1975From 1975: We Need a Foundation by Adele Hulse, Big Love author:

When they finally arrived in Los Angeles on June 23, Lama and Max were met by Thubten Wongmo and a photographer friend, Carol Royce-Wilder. Carol had arranged for them to stay in her relatives’ big ranch-style house in Tarzana, where they could relax between public lectures. “Lama fit right in,” said Carol. “He called my relatives his ‘American family’ and ended up changing their lives.” Lama loved the big clean house, especially the beautiful bathrooms.

Thubten Wongmo, previously Feather Meston, had arrived five months earlier to stay with her grandmother in Beverly Hills where she had grown up. Her father had created and written the TV series Gunsmoke, so the Los Angeles Times did a story on the Hollywood kid turned Buddhist nun. Wongmo brought her beloved grandmother, Bernardine Szold Fritz, to meet Lama Yeshe. “He jumped up from his seat, took her arm and walked her around the house. Her face was ecstatic,” said Wongmo. “I had never seen anyone being so loving and gentle with her.”

John Schwartz, a Los Angeles filmmaker, scriptwriter and producer, had seen the newspaper story on Wongmo and gotten in touch. When Lama wanted to visit a shopping mall, Wongmo and John Schwartz obliged. “He was buying all this stuff for the boys at Kopan,” said John. “But it was almost closing time and the staff was asking people to leave. He went out the big glass doors and held them open for the next person, and the next and the next, smiling at them all and saying, ‘Thank you!’ They looked at him and laughed. Wongmo had shown me a photo of Lama Yeshe before I met him, and I got rushes of energy from it. I didn’t know what was happening to me.”

Lama rested and relaxed for several days. On June 28, he gave a public lecture following a film showing at the University Religious Conference in Los Angeles to an audience of 250. The next day, the same program was repeated at Plummer Park, Fiesta Hall, to a similarly sized audience. Thubten Wongmo had organized these public lectures in order to encourage more people to attend the upcoming meditation course, as registration seemed to be below what the organizers had expected.

On Sunday, June 29, John and Wongmo went out to the airport to collect Lama Zopa Rinpoche and Nick. “I couldn’t believe the suitcases; they were the heaviest I had ever lifted,” said John. They were filled with Tibetan texts, all texts.

The lamas were to teach at Camp Arrowpines on Lake Arrowhead, east of Los Angeles. John Schwartz arranged for them to stay in a house belonging to his friend Michael Wayne, son of the famous actor John Wayne. Chuck Thomas, who had been to Kopan and who had helped care for the lamas in Wisconsin during the previous year, was appointed to be the lamas’ attendant; Teresa Knowlton, who had attended the fourth and sixth Kopan courses, was their driver.

A three-week course had been organized, with an official “early finish” after the first two weeks for those who could not attend the entire course. One hundred people attended the first two weeks; sixty remained for the third week. During the first two weeks of this retreat-style course, Rinpoche covered the basic lam-rim teachings, but during the last week, coming for only one session a day, he focused his teaching exclusively on the complex topic of emptiness. Lama Yeshe taught much more than usual during this course, and even gave private interviews to practically every student in attendance. It was also here that Lama introduced the tantric “seed-syllable meditation” for the first time to his students. In fact, either Nick or Wongmo led everyone in the seed-syllable meditation every morning from the very start of the course. As well, everyone took the eight Mahayana precepts each morning before dawn for the last two weeks of the course. Lama Yeshe actually gave refuge twice—at the early finish, two weeks into the course, to thirteen people, and at the course end on July 19 to thirty-eight students. On that day he also gave lay precepts to twenty. On July 20 sixty students received a Chenrezig initiation from Lama Yeshe.

In the Tibetan pantheon each deity (or personification of particular aspects of the enlightened mind) has an associated mantra—Sanskrit words packed with meaning. In reply to a question about mantra Lama Yeshe responded that while the common misconception was that reciting mantras is an external and unnatural exercise (rather than an internal and spontaneous occurrence), mantra transcends external sounds and words. “It is more like listening to a subtle inner sound that has always inhabited your nervous system,” he said.

 

Lama Yeshe on mantra:

The existence of inner sound cannot be denied. Our nervous system has its own specific inner sound. This is not something that Mahayanists have invented; it is an objective reality that exists within us. For example, the sound ah exists within us from the moment of birth. All speech sounds are derived from ah. Without ah there could be no other sound.

Mantra becomes more powerful when imparted by a qualified teacher who has deep inner experience of the mantra. A good teacher creates a situation that heightens our receptivity to the wisdom transmitted by the mantra.

Mantra is energy. It is always pure, and cannot be contaminated by negative thought processes. As mantra is not gross energy, it cannot be corrupted the way sensory phenomena are corrupted by our own minds. Those endowed with skilful wisdom will naturally attain realizations through the power of mantra. Practitioners of mantra yoga will discover that their inner sound becomes completely one with the mantra itself. Then even their normal speech become mantra. 

 

Seed syllables are a further reduction of such mantras into one intensely meaningful syllable. For example, Tara’s mantra is om taré tuttaré turé soha and her seed syllable is tam. Such seed syllables are usually visualized in written form (in either Western or Tibetan script) at the place of the chakras, or subtle energy centers, in the body. Seed syllables are all topped with three subtle cyphers: a crescent, a dot and a tiny flame. One practices visualizing the letters absorbing from the bottom to the top, through the two lower cyphers and into the tiny flame, which then dissolves into emptiness.

The seed-syllable meditation that Lama Yeshe taught to his students isa simple variation of the tummo (inner heat) meditation and an illustration of the mechanics of tantric practice, a huge field of study. Teaching such a practice to new students was a radical thing to do. It was a measure of Lama Yeshe’s extraordinary confidence in his students that he did so.

The basic visualization instructions for what Lama Yeshe called the “seed-syllable meditation” are almost identical to those of the vase breathing meditation described in the previous chapter, the only exception being that just above the mystic point below the navel where the three psychic channels join together, one visualizes inside that juncture a tiny red seed-syllable like a red-hot glowing ember. The idea is to generate heat from this “ember”—the inner psychic heat called tummo. As one practices vase breathing, the concentration of breath around the small flame in the shushumna, or central channel, brings energy to that point, causing the ember to glow hotter and hotter. This heat is then used to melt the psychic energy contained in the various chakras in the body, thereby generating great bliss throughout the body and mind. One uses this great bliss to cultivate deep concentration and as a powerful tool to further one’s understanding of non-duality, or emptiness.

Practicing the seed-syllable meditation brings one into contact with the inner psychic nervous system, the basis of tantric practice. It was most unusual for such a practice to be taught openly, especially to new Western students. But Lama Yeshe did just that.

“Lama hadn’t even taught the seed-syllable meditation to the Sangha yet, but he knew the American attitude was, ‘Show me! Prove it!’” said John Schwartz. “Lama Zopa had us all dissolving our bodies on our pillows, melting down all the atoms until there was nothing left. He told us how to ‘see’ the atoms in the wall and to put our finger through it. He described all this in such incredible detail that everyone was just blown away.”

Lama Yeshe usually kept out of sight during courses taught by Rinpoche, but in this instance the American students were becoming so emotional that he came every second night just to calm them down.

Carol Fields had come down from Berkeley, but she wasn’t having much fun. “I couldn’t eat and got only about four hours’ sleep a night. I had to leave the course early and so Lama gave refuge to me and another student together. I was filled with tenderness for everybody for about six months,” said Carol.

Carol Royce-Wilder took dozens of wonderful photos of the lamas teaching. One day, seemingly inconsolable and feeling desperately depressed, she burst in on Lama, sobbing hysterically. His eyes widened and he looked very concerned. “I just blubbered out of control, a real spectacle,” Carol recalled. “‘What is it, dear?’ he asked, taking my hands in his and drawing me close to him. Looking around he found flowers someone had given him and said, ‘Here, dear, these are for you.’

“I said, ‘No, no, Lama, it’s me who should be offering them to you!’ He handed me some fruit and said to take it, too. ‘No, Lama, you don’t understand; nothing helps. Not fruit, not flowers, it’s useless! I’m totally isolated and alone. I can’t feel anything. I’m dead. Nothing means anything to me, not even you, Lama!’ I shrieked and sobbed. He said, ‘Not even me? Impossible, impossible!’ Then he opened his eyes very wide and drew my eyes to his and what felt like my whole being went…somewhere. I don’t have the words to describe what happened. I felt like he took me into the deepest recesses of his being and I saw, I knew, that there was nothing there. Absolutely nothing at all. There was just an empty silence, a black hole. There was simply no person called ‘Lama’ inside. It was awesome. In that moment I realized that the friendly smiling personable Lama Yeshe I knew was a figment, a persona he’d created solely for our benefit, that behind the charismatic exterior lay unbounded empty space. Lama had allowed me to catch a glimpse of that for one brief but eternal moment. When I emerged from this indescribable experience he said, ‘Well, dear, we’ll talk again. Now you go back to the course.’ Later, I took the lamas to see the movie Earthquake. I was terrified. ‘It’s only a movie, dear,’ said Lama.”

Radmila Moacanin was struck by how similar the teachings were to those of Carl Jung. “When I told Lama I couldn’t recall past lives, he said that if one goes further and further back one slowly remembers them,” Radmila recounted. “One night he demonstrated attachment to one person by squeezing me so hard I couldn’t help but make the face of someone whose freedom has been removed. ‘You see?’ he said.”

Lama Yeshe had private interviews with almost everyone who attended the course. Later, he remarked that every female who came to see him had promptly burst into tears. One evening he sat with five women—Thubten Wongmo, Pam Cowan, Lois Greenwood, Merideth Hasson, Lynda Millspaugh—and two men—Nick Ribush and Dick Robinson—and discussed the possibility of holding a special course for women. They deliberated at length about what to call it. Clearly it had to be differentiated from the politically motivated women’s movement. Every time the words “women’s liberation” were mentioned in America, a dozen conflicting voices rose in clamor. “Women’s Meditation Course for Inner Development” was their best shot. The males present said that there should also be a special course for men. Lama Yeshe agreed, but for him teaching women how to use their energy appeared to be a priority. Some of Lama Yeshe’s comments during that conversation:

 

Women have a particular mind. Women have particular conceptions regarding the meaning of “man” and “woman” in the world and from these come specific notions about how to deal with men. These ideas, “woman means this,” “man means that,” are the source of so many problems between the sexes. These ideas obscure a true knowledge of the reality of female energy, the reality of male energy, and how they truly function. This knowledge brings a remarkable emotional release. This freedom from such emotionally fixed ideas makes it possible for a woman to relate better to herself, her own energy, free of misconceptions and misinterpretations. Since the beginning of this earth until now both women’s and men’s usual interpretations of “woman” has been absolutely wrong, on both sides. Therefore relationships between men and women have been wrong all along because such relationships are not actually found in the interpretations.

In reality, men can do and women can do. But men generally think that they run the world and so they create a hallucinated painting of reality like this. And women believe it too. Because men think they run the world, they also think that women are nothing. And women believe them. Many women think that men will lead and they can just, you know, help! That’s all. But that’s not true. Not at all. Without women in the world, men would go crazy, absolutely crazy. Women need to understand this. Without the support of women, ordinary men would be almost nonexistent, unable to have a life. Of course, here I’m speaking relatively.

This is why…I think female energy is very interesting. Understanding female energy can give women more strength and help them to become independent and free. You understand what I mean? It can actually completely release that feeling of insecurity that can come when a woman feels that she can’t have a life unless she has a man to lead her life for her. Many women carry, I think, misconceptions about themselves that contribute to a sense of weakness. This definitely doesn’t serve their liberation. These misconceptions are only words, you know. But because they believe they are in a weak position, then they don’t believe in the reality of their positive strength. So I think that to organize this course would be very worthwhile.

 

In the end, this special course for women never happened.

There were many discussions during the Lake Arrowhead course about establishing a center in California. After dinner one night Lama Yeshe sketched out a plan on a paper napkin and spoke to the students about his vision of what the land might look like: about 250 acres with a hill in the middle. The gompa was situated at the top of the hill with the Sangha living close by. At the base of the hill lived the lay community, with a school, gardens, craft shops—everything necessary for community life. He even gave the center its name: Vajrapani Institute for Wisdom Culture.

This center was first located in the Venice, California, home of Dick Robinson, Vajrapani’s first director, and his wife Merideth Hasson. The couple, together with Sharon and Louie Gross, all four Kopan students, later moved to Santa Barbara in southern California, where they shared a house designated as the new Vajrapani Institute location. They invited Dharma teachers and organized courses and evening meditation sessions, all for the purpose of furthering the development of Vajrapani Institute. Chuck Thomas was there to help, and John and Elaine Jackson, who would become important Vajrapani members in the future, first encountered the Dharma during those months in Santa Barbara. The Santa Barbara Vajrapani house only lasted about six months, however, after which Dick and Merideth returned to Venice and Sharon and Louie returned to Berkeley, where they all continued to organize Dharma activities under the name of Vajrapani.

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