Just practice what the Buddha taught
From 1978: Mahayana, Mahayana, Mahayana! by Adele Hulse, Big Love author:
Trisha Donnelly had spent several years in Delhi in the employ of Jamie and Isabelle Johnston. She met Nick Ribush when he moved into the Johnston’s house in Old Delhi. Now, Trisha turned up at Kopan to attend her first course. She just loved Lama Zopa Rinpoche. His endless talk about death did not bother her in the least, though it sent one woman running down the hill screaming, never to return. Twenty-six others left the course, citing mind control and cultist behavior. This was not unusual.
The eleventh Kopan course commenced on 15 November 1978. Two hundred people from twenty different countries enrolled in the course. The teachings in English were simultaneously translated into French, German, Spanish and Italian.
A fuel shortage in Nepal at the time meant that Kancha, now head cook at Kopan, had to make do with just one wood-burning stove on which to cook meals for all the Injis as well as nearly a hundred Mount Everest Centre monks. With Nepal’s forests just about stripped bare, Kopan’s wood now came all the way from the Indian border. In addition, the monastery still had water problems. Even though the water was collected from the spring at night and never reduced the availability of water for the local villagers, they repeatedly sabotaged the plastic pipes. It took years to reach a resolution with them.
From among the crowd that greeted Lama Yeshe upon his arrival he singled out Elea Redel, the French skeptic from Bodhgaya. “So, you’re back!” he exclaimed. “I don’t remember your name, but I remember all my people.”
Three days after the course began, more than 900 Americans committed suicide at Jonestown, Guyana, by swallowing cyanide at the direction of their “guru,” Jim Jones. Lama Yeshe pointed to the dangers of slavishly following a leader. “You don’t need a Tibetan trip,” he told the students. “Don’t follow blindly or with mystical attraction just because someone is a Tibetan yogi. You people are already silly wearing Tibetan clothes. You just practice what the Buddha taught, think carefully and test ideas independently.” He also told them not to try to convert their parents and siblings. “You don’t need to teach them anything. They probably have a lot more compassion than you do.”
Ngawang Chötak cornered Lama Yeshe as he left the tent after one teaching, determined to show him one of Carlos Castaneda’s books. “Lama, you just must read this book,” Chötak enthused. Lama took the book from Chötak and holding it with both hands, struck him on the head with it as he said, “I (hit) do (hit) not (hit) need (hit) to (hit) read (hit) this (hit) book (hard hit)!”
A German girl, Eva Marz, came down with a high fever during the course. “Oh, fever! That’s excellent! Just bring the heat from your head to your heart and it will be wonderful,” he told her. This cheered her enormously, but no sooner had the fever abated than diarrhea struck. While preparing a soothing herbal tea in the big kitchen, she ran into Lama again and said she was too ill to attend the teachings. “If you are sick you have to understand time and space. That’s all,” he said. This simple advice made her feel so relaxed she stopped worrying about what she was missing and just took care of herself.
As usual, several students came down with hepatitis. They ate a fat-free diet of boiled rice and vegetables and took Tibetan medicine. Lama Yeshe’s standard treatment for those with diarrhea was black coffee and yogurt. Others swore by plain white rice and weak black sugarless tea. Antibiotics were very popular in India and Nepal in the 1970s and Lama thought tetracyclin, or “tetracycle,” as he called it, was a great thing. He often sent someone down to Kathmandu to buy it over the counter. Before giving it out to people who came to him with headaches, fevers and upset stomachs, Lama held it in his hand, rubbed it, said some mantras and blew on it.
Lama Yeshe did not put in an appearance until almost the end of the month-long course. “We were all really tense,” said Trisha, “so Lama began with, ‘That Lama Zopa! He’s been talking to you about death and all these heavy things. Don’t you worry about that! Just forget about it. Lama Zopa just goes on and on, doesn’t he!’ As usual the tension melted away and everyone laughed their heads off. Then Rinpoche came back the next day and took up right where he had left off—talking about death.”
When Lama Yeshe taught he gave the students the very essence of the teaching, without its traditional cultural packaging. If someone asked him a question about something, such as the ten moralities for example, Lama would mention one or two of them in his reply and then say, “Those ten things. You ask Zopa about those ten things.”
As November became December, the weather became mild and lovely. Several students preferred sunbathing on the hill to listening to Lama Zopa Rinpoche. Lama Yeshe began his second talk with a message for the self-righteous. “I know some of you are angry about those people out there lying on the hill in the sun instead of coming to the session. But I tell you, if they lie out there and rejoice in the good karma we create by doing this course and meditating, then they create better karma than you do sitting here and getting angry with them for not coming.”
During his final lecture Lama agreed to answer written questions that had been placed in a basket. “Are you enlightened?” read one. Lama Yeshe covered his face with his zen, a characteristic gesture of his. “Of course I am,” he chortled, joking. The tent rocked with laughter. The Tibetan view is that those who are enlightened never say so, and those who claim they are enlightened are not.
At the end of the course there was the usual scramble to obtain interviews with the lamas.
An Australian boy wishing to formally ask Lama Yeshe to be his teacher was told by other students that he must first make three prostrations and present an offering. “I did so with much ceremony, but to my surprise he promptly tossed my offering of incense straight over my head into a corner of the room. He made it very clear he was not impressed by us copying Tibetan manners. That was simply not the point at all,” he said.
Two years earlier Jacques Haseart had been strangely attracted to a photograph of Lama Yeshe that had appeared in a French magazine and had decided he had to meet him. Jacques finally made it to Kopan. Like so many others he longed for an interview, but seeing the pressure Lama was under gave up on the idea. “One day as I was standing in the courtyard watching everyone making a beeline for him the moment he appeared, he suddenly by-passed them all and came straight over to me. He took my hand and walked with me until we were out of the way, then he said, ‘You want to ask me something?’ I said no, but he insisted that we go straight up to his room. Before I had even formulated any of the questions I did want to ask him about Christianity and God, they just evaporated.”
A doctor who had attended the course requested an interview with Lama. Lama Yeshe told him he should touch his patients constantly and not underestimate its healing power.
For some, interviews with Lama Yeshe were a highly charged emotional experience. “I think I cried out my whole life,” said one woman, “but afterwards I felt a real new beginning. He inspired me completely.”
Trisha Donnelly asked if she could do a Tara retreat. “You don’t want to do lam-rim?” Lama asked her with exaggerated mock surprise. “No,” replied Trisha and promptly dissolved into tears. “I told him I had been much happier before doing this course and that feeling angry, for example, had seemed natural and spontaneous. I also told him I seemed to have lost my sense of humor, that instead of being able to make people laugh I just felt uptight. Then I cried a lot more and Lama told one of the boys to bring me a cup of coffee.” Years later, Trisha recalled the incident. “It was my first course and I’d decided I didn’t like lam-rim. It was confusing me. I wanted to be ‘me,’ not suppressing ‘me,’ as I saw it then. I loved the thought of tantra. So Lama showed me just with the way he asked the question that you need to practice lam-rim before you can practice tantra.”