Jon Landaw worked closely with Lama Yeshe again during this course, editing his teachings and leading discussions. “Lama believed that at the start of a course it was more beneficial for newcomers if the students appointed to answer questions were not ordained,” said Jon. “He thought the robes might intimidate them at first, but when they got used to seeing Western monks and nuns it no longer mattered who answered questions. I usually gave the introductory talks. Prostrations always seemed to freak a lot of people out at first. Since I didn’t have a religious background I felt comfortable pointing out there was value in the act, that it wasn’t just bowing to graven images.”
Ever practical, Lama Yeshe allowed students to develop at their own pace. For example, Jon Landaw refused to even think about the subject of reincarnation for the first three years. “When the lamas taught on rebirth I just put down my pen,” he said. “I didn’t even take notes. There are so many riches in the Buddhist teachings I didn’t worry about the bits that made me feel uncomfortable. Besides, Lama was always advising us to be skeptical. ‘Check up, dear,’ was his constant refrain. ‘This meditation course isn’t about Buddha, it isn’t even about Buddhism. It’s about you. Whatever you hear you have to check up,’ he told us. He loved us trying to pick holes in his arguments. He knew a lot of us had run away from religion and were totally against blind faith.
“There were certain expressions Lama used repeatedly. For example, when he talked about experiences he knew we’d had he would say, ‘So simple, dear!’ That allowed us to acknowledge these experiences. He said ‘Thank you dear’ so often that some of us called him ‘the thank you lama.’ I’m not sure if any of us quite knew what his ‘Thank you, dears’ meant, because he’d say it when he did something for us. Perhaps it was for the opportunity to be of service.
“Another of his power expressions was ‘Difficult!’—meaning he understood how difficult it was for us to change our habits, but that it was definitely possible to change. He taught us that every time we recognized the sufferings of another sentient being, this could become the motivation for us to continue on the spiritual path. In this way desperate situations could be turned into positive experiences.
“Lama was always involving us in activities rather than running the show himself. It was always, ‘Let’s do it together.’ He gave me the confidence to give talks, lead discussions and edit. He told me it wasn’t Tibetans who were going to bring Dharma to the West, but Westerners.
“I never asked him why he didn’t finish his geshe degree. He always made light of the subject. ‘Oh, all these people taking exams and making tea offerings—it’s just a Tibetan trip,’ he’d say. ‘I got the impression that if you had the knowledge you didn’t need the degree. I don’t know if that was his only attitude to it but it was the one he showed us.
“Lama had a unique teaching style. Instead of saying, ‘Do you understand me?’ he’d ask, ‘Are we communicating?’ Moreover, he acted out what he was saying, which was very helpful because not all his students spoke English. Even those who did speak English often couldn’t understand him properly until they caught on to his unusual rhythms of speech, peculiar pronunciation and unorthodox sentence structure. Lama communicated far beyond the meaning of the words he used, using facial expressions and sometimes just silences to get his point across. This made it challenging to edit his teachings for publication, because so much of what he conveyed was non-verbal.
“Lama’s ability to communicate without relying on words was truly phenomenal. I remember one day at Kopan there was an outdoor picnic being held to celebrate the conclusion of a meditation course. The mother of two students was attending. She spoke only Spanish. English was the only Western language Lama knew, but that didn’t stop him from holding a ‘conversation’ with her. I was standing at some distance from them, but even from there I could clearly understand what Lama was ‘saying’ to her. Using the gestures of a master mime, he addressed the fears she had by acting out the following: ‘I know you are concerned about your children being so far from home, but you don’t have to worry. I will keep an eye on them.’”
During the closing puja it was customary for a tray to be passed around for those who wanted Lama Yeshe to bless their malas, small statues and other personal items. One girl added a White Tara thangka to the pile and was surprised when Lama Yeshe later suggested she have it framed.
“There was no name on it so how did he know it was mine?” she wondered. “I did have it framed, though in very untraditional colors. When I went back to McLeod Ganj, Dharamsala, I left it with my luggage in Tashi’s thukpa shop while I went looking for a room. When I came back to collect my things, the thangka was just gone.
“Some weeks later I was in the Dalai Lama’s temple, and lo and behold, there was my White Tara thangka hanging on the wall. I recognized it immediately. The monk in charge told me it had been found in the marketplace. I suddenly felt it was exactly where it ought to be. I left it there, where it still hangs to this day among many other White Tara thangkas.”
After the meditation course, Lama Yeshe gave a Manjushri initiation to a select few in the privacy of his room. “I’d done a number of retreats and considered myself a great meditator,” said one man there. “In the Vajrasattva commentary it says that during purification your nervous system is destroyed so it can be rebuilt. That is exactly what Lama Yeshe did to mine during that initiation: he tore my nervous system apart.”
Lama Yeshe on Asanga
From 15 December 1976 to 2 January 1977 Lama Yeshe taught on chapter one of Discriminating Between the Middle and the Extremes, one of the five great treatises attributed to Maitreya, the “coming Buddha.”
A remarkable story tells how these great texts came to exist. The fourth-century Indian saint, Asanga, lived in a cave in retreat and engaged in the practice of Maitreya, praying continuously to see the future buddha. After three years of practice with no results, Asanga gave up, thinking his efforts were fruitless, and started to leave. But as he walked down the mountain, he saw a bird fly between two large boulders to get at its nest. The boulders were worn smooth simply from the bird’s feathers repeatedly brushing against them. Asanga thought to himself that if such a gentle occurrence could have such an effect, then surely he could try harder and reach his goal. So he returned to retreat.
After three more years of practice with no results, again Asanga abandoned his retreat in discouragement. But again, as he walked away from his cave, he saw a spot where water was dripping onto a rock surface. The constant dripping of the water had worn a hole in the rock over time. Again, this made a strong impression on Asanga’s mind and he returned to his retreat with renewed inspiration.
After three more years of practice with no results again, Asanga became quite desperate; again, he abandoned his cave and headed down the mountainside. This time he saw a man patiently making sewing needles by rubbing a thick piece of iron with just a thread. Surely, thought Asanga, if this man can be so patient and work so hard for such a small result, I can try harder. Back he went, for three more years.
At the end of those years Asanga had been in retreat for twelve years and still he didn’t seem to have had any results at all. This time he left his cave determined not to return. On his way to the nearest village Asanga saw a sick and wounded dog lying by the side of the path. Its wounds were rotting and full of maggots. Asanga’s heart was moved with compassion and the wish to help this poor suffering dog. But he also did not wish to harm in any way the maggots feeding on its flesh. He had to devise a way to help all of them without harming anyone. Asanga then sliced a piece of flesh from his own leg and placed it beside the dog. Knowing that if he tried to pick up the maggots with his fingers, he would squash them, Asanga decided to lick the maggots off one by one with his tongue so as not to hurt them, and to place them onto the flesh from his leg, which would provide them with needed food. Closing his eyes, he leaned over the dog to do this. As he leaned further and further forward, he became puzzled as he never reached the dog’s wound. Asanga opened his eyes and was amazed to see that the dog was no longer there and before him stood Maitreya.
Asanga immediately exclaimed, “Where have you been? Why didn’t you come to me in retreat?” Pointing to some spittle adhering to the hem of his robe, Maitreya replied, “My son, even though you couldn’t see me, I have been with you constantly since your first day in the cave. Remember all the times you caught cold and had to spit? Here it is on my robe, where it landed. You recited my mantra more than a billion times and developed very powerful concentration, but your mind was still bound by the self-cherishing attitude. Today you have learned the meaning of loving others more than yourself; therefore, you are able to see me as I am.”
Asanga was so delighted that he lifted Maitreya onto his shoulders and paraded through the town, crying, “Behold, Maitreya has come!’ But the people of the village saw only a crazy man carrying nothing at all on his shoulders, with the exception of one old woman who saw the wounded dog.
Then Asanga took hold of Maitreya Buddha’s robe and was transported off to the pure land of Tushita, where he spent just one morning. During that brief celestial visit Maitreya transmitted to Asanga five major treatises, of which Discriminating Between the Middle and the Extremes was one. When Asanga was returned to earth, bringing with him these texts by Maitreya, he was amazed to find that fifty years had passed!
In later years, Lama Yeshe shared the following reflections with his students about this story: “I think this story very beautifully illustrates an essential point of Mahayana thought. People often have a tendency to think meditation is easy. One just sits down on the cushion and immediately reaches beyond all delusion into divine wisdom. This simply is not so. It is a gradual process. We must be realistic and start where we are. The mind is a difficult thing to tame. For example, we all know how difficult it is to preserve our bodies. According to Mahayana Buddhism it is much more difficult to keep our mind in tranquility and full of wisdom. It is not enough to have perfect single pointed concentration. We must also have the great wish for enlightenment (bodhicitta) the nature of which is selfless love and universal compassion.”
. In Tibetan, U ta nam che, in Sanskrit, Madhyanta-vibhanga. CN
From Lama Yeshe’s teachings on Discriminating Between the Middle and the Extremes at Kopan in 1976:
Chapter 1, Stanza 4:
The environment (sensory world), sentient beings, the self-existent entity and cognition (in general)—all these appearances of mental consciousness strongly grow (from the repeated imprints of superstition); these (appearances) do not exist (in the way they are perceived). (Therefore) because the object does not exist (as it appears), the subject (perceiving the object) also does not exist (as it appears).
Each time we have delusion, our appearances become thicker and thicker. For example, our memories of home or of our neighborhood supermarket will frequently come into our minds. These memories come from imprints that are placed on the consciousness and remain there continuously. When we sit down and try to meditate on a subject again and again, these memories come up again and again. We don’t want them, but we can’t stop them. Intellectual understanding isn’t enough; we need method and wisdom. We start with our intellectual understanding. Then we practice contemplation from which experience comes.
Roughly speaking, we can talk about two types of sense objects: inert material forms and sentient beings, beings with mind. These objects in the external sense world appear to our consciousness. But the appearances of these things don’t exist in the way they are perceived. The various appearances of the material world, sentient beings, the self-existent I, all our sense perceptions—all these appearing things do not exist in the way we perceive them. We can say this in another way: that is, the entire sense world does not exist as perceived because we only perceive our limited dualistic view. This is especially true with regard to our perceptions of the ego—“I am”—and each other.
Nevertheless, our deluded perceiving consciousness continues to grow because the imprints of dualistic appearance are repeated billions of times. For example, when we see the color white, the object of our sense consciousness is manifested from our consciousness. The imprint is manifested from our consciousness into a color, which then appears to us. There’s no color white sitting there waiting for us to perceive it. When our consciousness looks at the environment, the environment comes into existence.