Refuge at the Yucca Valley Course
One hundred people enrolled in Lama Zopa Rinpoche’s two-week lam-rim course at the Institute for Mental Physics in Yucca Valley, a residential retreat center in the California desert east of Los Angeles.
During Rinpoche’s course, Lama Yeshe gave a couple of talks. Among those meeting him for the first time was Jacie Keeley. “He looked very sick, all soft and squishy, and his skin was a yellow-gray putty color,” said Jacie. “This gray little man walked into the big room, climbed up on this huge throne and sat in meditation. By the time he spoke he was big, golden and powerful. I was impressed. I wore dark glasses to every talk Lama gave because I cried through every one. On my twenty-eighth birthday I went to Lama, told him I wanted to follow the bodhisattva path and was willing to help him in any way. I was absolutely hooked.”
It was also Janet Brooke’s first course. “I was raised a Mormon and ultra-Christian in outlook. At first everything the lamas said reinforced my heartfelt beliefs, but one morning Rinpoche was talking about taking responsibility for ourselves rather than leaving it all to God. Suddenly I felt very confused, started crying and left the room. After attending a group interview with Lama Yeshe I realized it was merely a matter of terminology and at the end of the course felt perfectly comfortable about taking refuge.”
Before the refuge ceremony Lama Yeshe told those who had come together for the ceremony, “Don’t do it just to do it. It’s really important to know if you have a connection with that teacher. See if when you think of that person, some kind of strong feeling comes up in your heart, even tears.” “Tears came out of nowhere for me pretty much every time I saw Lama,” said Lois Greenwood-Audant, who had been at the fourth Kopan course with her partner, Gabriel.
Carol Fields also took refuge, giving Lama her wedding ring as an offering—the only thing of value she had with her. “In front of everyone Lama Yeshe held up the ring and said, ‘This is a ring that people get married with, but I think she and I have been married for a long time.’ It was years before my usually sharp-eyed husband noticed the ring was missing. I think that ring not only bound me to Lama but protected my long marriage.”
Listening to the lam-rim teachings and just being with the lamas changed people’s lives. One man put his will in order before coming to the course and found many other students had done the same, sensing their lives were going to change forever. During this course Carol Royce-Wilder filmed the lamas walking around the Yucca Valley institute grounds. A great hawk circled above them, landing on a branch just beside Lama Yeshe. He walked right over to it and held up his hand. The bird didn’t move a muscle. “Power and magic!” exclaimed the Carlos Castaneda devotees.
Indeed, Lama Yeshe seemed to connect powerfully with many animals, even cats. Cats were quite rare in Tibet and Lama would have had little contact with them before coming to the West. Nicole Couture was present when Lama once pinched the tip of a cat’s tail, which made it walk backwards like a little robot. Nicole tried that later with other cats, but with no success whatsoever.
From Lama Zopa Rinpoche’s lam-rim teachings at Yucca Valley, California, in 1977:
The word “Dharma” is Sanskrit. Dharma means “holding up.” For example, if a person is about to fall down from a precipice, then holding them back from falling means to hold them back from getting hurt or killed. Dharma is a method that protects us from the dangers of suffering and unhappiness. This is the meaning of Dharma.
In the West there are many different kinds of knowledge: psychology, education, psychiatry, and so on. What are all these for, what is their purpose? All these different methods are to bring about greater happiness instead of suffering. In the same way, the Dharma is a method for happiness. And the Buddhadharma contains all the various methods that are taught through education, that have different names. All this knowledge is contained in the Dharma, with nothing missing.
The greatest problem for everyone, for even the tiniest creature, for every human being, is exactly the same: wanting happiness and not wanting suffering. Every living being hopes that the methods they employ in trying to obtain happiness will be successful, that whatever they decide to do will work. The problem is that in trying to achieve happiness and eliminate suffering they generally employ only external methods. They believe that happiness and suffering are caused by external factors. This is, in fact, a basic wrong conception. Both happiness and suffering are internal; they are both mental phenomena. They are not external, not physical. And the causes of happiness and suffering are also internal and mental; they are not external nor physical. The causes of suffering are in the mind and so to eliminate suffering those causes need to be purified, cleansed. In the same way the causes of happiness are also internal in nature, so in order to achieve happiness we must establish those causes in the mind.
Let’s look at a simple example. Let’s say that someone steals your tape recorder. When you discover that your tape recorder has been stolen, at first there arises a sense of clinging. Your mind becomes so unhappy. Anger arises, and depression. But in that very minute, if you were to think that you should actually make charity, if you think how extremely kind this person has been to you, how helpful he is to give you this opportunity to make charity, then right in that moment there is a realization in the mind. If you totally determine in your mind to give your tape recorder to that other person, right then, in that moment when the decision is made, there is a true realization in the mind. You experience peace in your mind. Within just one minute the mind has been changed, from suffering to happiness. Before, the mind was unhappy, suffering, depressed. But by means of a single thought, just the determination to give the object away, the problem ceased and the unhappiness was stopped. The mind becomes peaceful, relaxed.
In this way you can see that happiness, peace of mind, is not received from external factors. Happiness and peace of mind arise from internal factors, just by changing the way that we think. By applying a different way of thinking, we can experience happiness and stop suffering.
Suffering is caused by the dissatisfied mind of attachment. This is one of the poisonous minds. When you plant a poisonous tree in your garden, you will get only poisonous fruit, but if you plant a medicinal tree, then you will get medicinal fruit. In the same way, by following the poisonous mind, the result that you get will be only suffering, but by planting positive virtuous minds, you will receive happiness as the result.