The Lake Arrowhead Course
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.