Mount Everest Center
The Kopan community fell neatly into two separate worlds: the Injis and the Mount Everest Centre monks. As far as the Injis were concerned Kopan was paradise—the best thing that had ever happened to them. In contrast, some of the young monks wanted to run away. Michael Losang Yeshe was no longer the exotic little Inji monk he had once been but was now one of the crowd, speaking Tibetan like a native and looking every bit as grubby as his Sherpa classmates. He constantly used the expression “we Tibetans.”
“Once four of us ran away together,” Michael recalled. “Our punishment was to carry six tins of water each from the bottom of the hill, then pour it into the Tara pond. This meant a fifteen-minute walk each way. After just one trip we decided the only way to avoid this horrible task was to run away again. My father had married a Nepali woman, so we ran to his house in Kathmandu. But one of the monks ran back to Kopan and told Lama what we were doing. Only my stepmother was home when we got there and to our dismay she immediately drove Gelek Gyatso Rinpoche and me back to Kopan and marched us into Lama’s room. We sat down nervously. ‘You escaped! Shame on you!’ said Lama. ‘You too Losang Yeshe, have shame!’ But he gave us an easier punishment than the first one. The fourth monk had also run to his family’s home in Kathmandu, but when he returned Lama told him he had to leave Kopan. ‘The reason you escaped is because you don’t like it here, you don’t get what you need here and something is wrong for you, isn’t it? So why did you come back? You don’t want to stay, so you can go,’ Lama told him. It’s funny how Lama sent him away and not us. I ran away a couple more times and nobody ran away more than Gelek Gyatso, yet Lama accepted him back every time.”
Even Yangsi Rinpoche occasionally got into trouble. “Sometimes we had our art class in the gompa,” he recalled, “and occasionally Lama would walk through and inspect our work. One day I shouted something carelessly to another boy. Lama came straight over and scolded me, saying, ‘Aren’t you ashamed of shouting like that in class? You are a rinpoche and have to behave better than that.’ I was pretty young but I never forgot that incident. Lama was always so kind and loving to me. This was the first time he had ever scolded me. It brought down my ego.”
One little monk, Thubten Sherab, got thrown out of Kopan for being naughty. Everyone liked Thubten Sherab, who spoke Italian and Spanish and even taught English. Lama Yeshe noted Jimi Neal’s distress over the expulsion. “You shocked my method, dear?” Lama asked him. “I was and said so, but I immediately guessed what he was up to,” said Jimi. “Thubten Sherab was supposed to find some adult to come back to Kopan with him and beg for him to be allowed back. That’s exactly what happened and from then on things were fine for him.”
Most of the boys were from the Himalayan mountains and as wild as little lions. They needed Lama’s tough love. Lama Yeshe often whacked the boys with his long wooden mala. This horrified some of the Injis but he dismissed their concerns. “Look at these boys, how lucky they are! Here they spend their days doing puja and practicing Dharma. If they were in America what do you think they’d be doing?”
Lama regularly exacted discipline in the boys’ dining room. “His big thing was that we should not talk while eating,” said one boy. “If he heard noise from the dining room he’d come in, take off one of his wooden Dr. Scholl’s sandals and go down the line banging everybody on the head with it. Nobody cried because we weren’t really afraid of Lama Yeshe. Lama Pasang was much tougher on us. As for Lama Lhundrup, no one was ever afraid of him. Once we were playing around during a meal when suddenly Lama
Yeshe was there behind us. “You are shouting during dinner! You haven’t got any manners!” He went to the vegetable store, took out a big long white radish and went boom, boom, on everyone’s head. The radish broke at the fifth boy, so he got another one.”
Lama Yeshe kept a close watch on their food, making sure it was clean, not greasy and included a daily salad. At night they usually ate thukpa and chapattis. Lama didn’t want them eating Western bread and jam, which was of very low quality in Nepal. When he left to go on tour, however, standards in the kitchen tended to decline. Lama also instructed the boys in cleanliness and personal hygiene.
Sometimes the boys cleaned up the Inji dining room during courses and washed dishes, but generally the Mount Everest Centre boys had little contact with the foreign community other than at pujas. Falling asleep during puja was a common occurrence.
“We were allowed to fall asleep twice, but if it happened a third time it meant a black mark on your discipline record,” recalled Michael Losang Yeshe. “I learned how to fall asleep sitting upright with only my head drooping and one eye half open. Once I woke from a sound sleep to feel the unmistakable presence of Lama Yeshe behind me and something cold and heavy on my head. I realized it was one of the big water bowls off the altar. He poured the water all over me and held the bowl on my head while all the Injis behind me giggled.”
But life for the boys wasn’t all discipline and hardship. There were wonderful times with Lama, especially when they got out the traditional dancing masks. At Losar the boys had a marvelous time prancing around in them, clashing cymbals and blowing the long horns while Lama Yeshe threw handfuls of candies to them from the gompa roof.
Once again Michael’s father, Yorgo Cassapidis, invited all the Kopan monks to make puja at his house and in return gave each boy an offering of 100 rupees. Riches beyond their wildest dreams! Back at Kopan Lama Yeshe produced a list of every boy who had been at that puja and greeted them with an outstretched hand. Funds at Kopan were desperately short and again, such largesse was not to be wasted.