The 8th Kopan Meditation Course
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.