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Stop! Don’t leave. Sit down.

16746_slAt the end of the 1976 course Lama Yeshe had begun teaching Discriminating Between the Middle and the Extremes (Tib. U ta nam che), one of the five treatises of Maitreya Buddha. Now, at the end of 1978 Lama resumed these teachings. He finished the first chapter of the text and began the second.

Every day Jon Landaw sat with Lama while they translated a few verses into English. Jon then wrote the verses out on a blackboard for everyone to copy. Jon also gave daily talks between the teachings, sharing what Lama had taught him during their translation sessions.

“Lama was every bit the scholar, sitting in his room with the root text and surrounded by all the commentaries that had been written about it. Sometimes Lama Zopa Rinpoche was there too, with all his texts. I didn’t read Tibetan and didn’t know what these texts were, but there was one by the Karmapa and another by Vasubandhu,” Jon recalled.[1]

“Lama translated each line word by word, then he and Rinpoche discussed it, sometimes in Tibetan, sometimes in English. Rinpoche often said that the commentaries he was reading suggested that this particular verse meant such and such. Lama then thought for a bit and say, ‘Well, one of the commentaries I’m reading agrees with that interpretation, and this other commentary says something else, but I think for these students here now it would be best if we explained it like this.’ And then he offered up another explanation.

“It wasn’t that Lama was guessing about the meaning of the verse in question, or that he was familiar with only one commentary. Instead, after digesting all the commentaries Lama chose the presentation that in his opinion was the most suitable for the audience he was addressing.”

02297_ng-2George Churinoff was now Lama Yeshe’s attendant, responsible for getting him to the teachings on time and ensuring he stopped on time. Lama simply ignored George’s clock-watching during the teachings and mercilessly and joyfully teased him about it. Returning to his room after one of the first lectures, he leaned on George’s arm and asked him, “Do you think they understood?” Once when George went to get him, Lama exclaimed, “What do you mean? You’re ten minutes early!” and got right back into bed.

One evening during these teachings Claudio Cipullo’s brother, Marco, suddenly felt ill. As he was quietly slipping out the door Lama Yeshe called to him from the throne, “Stop! Don’t leave. Sit down.” Marco sat down but soon began creeping away again, certain that he was about to be sick. “Stop!” Lama ordered. “Don’t leave. If you just sit down, the sickness will pass!” “I couldn’t argue with Lama so I did sit down, and just as he had said the sickness passed,” said Marco.

Lama teased many students about their nationalistic loyalties. Even the Sangha sat together in little national groups. Lama wanted to demonstrate how such mundane distinctions could be divisive. He ribbed the Americans with, “Wealthiest nation in the world but they don’t even have time to eat breakfast!” Then he started in on the Italians. “Italy is a disaster! India begins in Italy! For one letter to get to another town it takes a month. They’re hopeless!”

Bob Alcorn had met Lama Yeshe only recently and at first sight he was not very impressed. “He struck me as just a fat Tibetan lama,” said Bob. Westerners tended to like their saints thin and seemed to find Rinpoche’s extremely slight frame very inspiring. In reality, Lama was not so much fat as swollen with fluids.

12946_pr“I did notice it was Lama Yeshe who got everyone excited, however,” Bob later remarked. “Years later I realized that Lama was not at all laid back and was probably even stricter than Rinpoche. I got ordained after my first course and then wanted to disrobe because the politics of being a Western monk in Asia and living in a Dharma center were too much for me. When I told Lama Yeshe he exploded. We were standing outside his room and he went into a huge rage, calling me every abusive name under the sun without swearing. We then had a very heated debate about the value of keeping ordination, which he won. Thirty-five years later I was still a monk, entirely due to that debate.”

Lama loved the garden at Kopan and was very disappointed that fruit trees continually failed to thrive there. He said as much to the monk Pelgye, who asked him what he meant by disappointed. Wasn’t the idea to have equanimity in all things? “Yes dear,” said Lama. “In my heart I am completely blissful but at the same time disappointed.”

[1].    Vasubandhu, a great scholar and the younger brother of the Indian saint Asanga, composed the Abhidharmakosha, a highly revered text on Buddhist phenomenology.

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