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Posts from the ‘1978: Mahayana, Mahayana, Mahayana!’ Category

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.


My fully liberated American dakini

From  1978: Mahayana, Mahayana, Mahayana! by Adele Hulse, Big Love author:

Lama Yeshe with His Holiness and entourage, 1982“On the train ride up to Dharamsala Lama and I shared a first-class compartment with two other people,” Judy Weitzner recalled. “Even though he was wearing robes, Lama pretended we were married and drove them nuts by never quite answering any of their questions. It was very funny. At Tushita Retreat Centre he kept introducing me as ‘my fully liberated American dakini.’ All I could say was, ‘Oh God, Lama!’

“He’d picked up all sorts of quaint little objects during his travels and began arranging them on his altar. There was a little Eiffel Tower, miniature animals and this and that. It was so charming and the mixture so incongruous. I had brought him some chocolate-covered raisins which went into a little bowl and straight onto the altar. There were also packages of bulbs and seed catalogues that had been sent to him by American students. Lama loved planning his garden.

“While I was at Tushita he asked me to monitor his appointments. I was supposed to keep them brief because he was exhausted. But every time he greeted someone he made them feel as if he had all the time in the world, just for them. Whenever I went in and tried to edge someone out, they’d say, ‘But Lama told me to stay.’ He would go on and on until he was utterly spent. Then he’d grab his old ski-pole walking stick and trudge off to visit someone he’d heard was sick.”

Judy continued her story. “Lama told me that lots of Tibetans criticised him for bothering with teaching Dharma to Westerners, but I knew he reported to the Dalai Lama after each tour and that everything he did was with the approval of His Holiness.

“True to his word, Lama took me to see His Holiness when he made his usual report. The conversation was mostly in Tibetan but I could tell that Lama was telling His Holiness what he had observed on his tour of Western countries. They talked quite a lot about Western psychology. It seemed Lama was among the first Tibetan monks to get around in the Western world in the way he did.

Lama Yeshe and Geshe Losang Tsultrim, 1982“Lama wanted me to report to the Dalai Lama about the activities of the International Society for Tibetan Reality, which I did and was then sent to see His Holiness’s secretary, Tenzin Geyche, who had organised Justice for Tibet International. We had the same purposes and joined forces. While in Dharamsala I realised that one of the reasons so little about Tibet was being published was because there were no Western-trained journalists there to write press releases likely to be picked up.   By this time all I ever talked about was Tibet and on the flight back to the US I was telling the Asian man sitting next to me all about how the US wouldn’t let His Holiness in and he said to me, “I can assure you it will not be long before His Holiness will be granted a visa to the United States.” He knew something.

“We began working on several projects, one of which was to lobby the US State Department to give the Dalai Lama a visa to enter the country. We deluged them and our congressmen and senators with letters suggesting a change in policy and petitioned Amnesty International to take up the cause of Tibetan political prisoners. We became a kind of clearing house for information about Tibet. I printed the first ever Free Tibet stickers and sent a bundle to Nepal to put on the Tiger Taxis. I was only back from India a few months when His Holiness was granted a visa.”

Lama Yeshe told Judy Weitzner that the names he gave to each center were very carefully chosen. ‘I give the name Vajrapani to the people in California for their center and they don’t know what it means. But they say the word a lot and it makes an imprint on their minds,’ “He explained that Vajrapani’s energy was the kind they needed in California,” said Judy.

“Lama was always so kind to me. Once when I discovered that all my jewelry had been stolen he told me, ‘Oh good! Now the grasping attachment things are gone!’ Later in the mail came two wedding rings for me to wear, one from Lama and one from Lama Zopa.

“He sent me on ahead to Kopan with a message that the ground beneath the meditation tent was to be sprayed for fleas before the November course. The hard-liners were shocked, but Lama argued that if biting fleas interfered with the students’ ability to concentrate on the Dharma they must be gotten rid of.”

“If that message was received, it was not acted on,” said Jacie Keeley. “The fleas were dreadful that year and Lama was outraged.”

Andrea Antonietti, a twenty-one-year-old Italian lad, arrived at Tushita and announced that Kyabjé Ling Rinpoche had agreed that he could be ordained in a few months’ time. Lama Yeshe asked if he had obtained his parents’ permission. “Permission, Lama? I have lived away from home for some years. Why do I need their permission?” Lama was adamant, adding that he could be ordained at Kopan once his parents consented. Lama told Andrea to write a letter to his Catholic parents.

00001_udAndrea described what happened. “Lama told me exactly what to write, word for word, admitting all the problems and worry I had brought them by hanging around with hippies and indulging in ‘extra-sensory experiences.’ He told me to emphasize that my attitude had changed, that now I valued religion. My parents gave their permission and said they were very happy to support me as a Buddhist monk.

“Lama also said I should go back to Italy and visit Assisi, where I had never been before because of my prejudices against Christianity. He mentioned that he had seen Zeffirelli’s movie on St. Francis of Assisi, Brother Sun, Sister Moon, and said it was the best religious movie he had ever seen.”

Before leaving Dharamsala for Kopan Lama Yeshe mailed a brick of the very best quality Tibetan tea to David Templeman in Melbourne. On the enclosed card he wrote, “Dear David, Mery (sic) Christmas, see you soon, much love Lama Yeshe.”


Just practice what the Buddha taught

From  1978: Mahayana, Mahayana, Mahayana! by Adele Hulse, Big Love author:

Lama teaching, Kopan, 1974Trisha 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.

Rinpoche teaching, Kopan, 1974 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.”

The kitchen at Kopan, 1976Trisha 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.”

More profound than meditation

Lama teaching at UCSC, 1978From  1978: Mahayana, Mahayana, Mahayana! by Adele Hulse, Big Love author:

On 16 October, the day before the lamas’ scheduled departure, Lama met with the Spanish organizers of the course at Fredi’s house. Now that they had sufficient funds they could begin to think about what kind of center they wanted to establish in Spain. Lama Yeshe had already allocated a name, Centro Nagarjuna. The meeting was conducted in English, which Paco did not speak. At the end of the meeting Lama asked each of those present what contribution they could make to the new center. “When it was my turn,” said Paco, “my hands seem to stretch out of their own accord. I said these were all I had to offer. Lama very sweetly placed them on his cheeks and his head and said, ‘Okay dear, very good, very good.’ The others laughed at this, but I entered some timeless state.”

Lama suggested they search for a site high in the mountains, far from the polluted air of the cities. He told François Camus to lead meditations and be the spiritual director. Maria Torres was to continue in her role as housekeeper. The Spanish students had funds and Lama Yeshe had given a name, but it took eighteen months, two false starts and half of the funds before Spain finally had its first FPMT center. To Lama Yeshe it was clear from the very beginning that hedonistic Ibiza was not suitable.

Maria Torres was twenty-five years old and heavily pregnant. After years at a convent school she didn’t want anything more to do with religion, especially chanting and prostrations. So she was surprised to find how touched she was by Lama Yeshe and never missed any of his talks. “I sensed that he was probably the most important man I would ever meet in my life, someone completely integrated and absolutely authentic. I thought that to work for this man was one way to ensure I would never make big mistakes in my life,” Maria later explained. “I was about to have a baby and asked Lama to name it. He did some mantras and puja over my stomach with water and some kind of grass and said, ‘His name is Yeshe Gyatso.’ Lama gave me a picture of Tara, one pill to take and a visualization of green light to do during labor. Lama also told me to find a man who would be a good father to the child. Yeshe was born two days after Lama Yeshe left Ibiza. Paco and I then began a relationship and about six months later I took Paco’s name.”

Xavi Alongina wanted to publish Dharma books in Spanish. “Lama told me to go very slowly, not to hurry at all,” said Xavi. “I got seriously involved in studying and teaching yoga, which brought in enough to support me, my wife and our son, while I dedicated myself to building Ediciones Dharma in Alicante.” By 2011 this company, still under Xavi’s direction, had become the world’s largest publisher of Dharma books in Spanish, having sold over 220,000 books in all and 90,000 copies of their magazine, Cuadernos de Budismo, since 1991.

17351_pr_BGOne day Peter Kedge suddenly realized that Zong Rinpoche did not hold the appropriate papers to re-enter India. While the rest of the party went to Majorca for a little rest, Jacie Keeley went to Madrid to sort out his papers. “That was the turning point in my life,” Jacie recalled. “I had joined the tour at my own expense and was fast running out of money. I had also become conscious of the fact that my flower-child look was no longer appropriate. In Madrid, I swapped my long hippie skirts for a nice new dress, replaced my duffel bag with a proper suitcase and soon afterwards cut my waist-length hair. When I finished sorting out Zong Rinpoche’s papers I rejoined the others on Majorca.

“One day I was sitting on my bed bawling my eyes out because I only had $300 left. I didn’t know what to do, so I was making prayers to the only image I had, a line drawing of Tara I had cut out of a brochure. Peter Kedge walked in and said Lama wanted to sponsor me to go to Kopan. So that was that.”

From Spain, Yeshe Khadro escorted Zong Rinpoche to Switzerland by train. Rinpoche didn’t speak any English and she had never been to Switzerland before. “Some Tibetans met us at this tiny village and we stayed there the night,” said Yeshe Khadro. “Zong Rinpoche opened his suitcase and out tumbled all these electric wind-up toys that had been given to Lama Yeshe. He was taking them back to the monastery. There were police cars and dogs that jumped and all sorts of things. Rinpoche and the Tibetans had a great time playing with them.” Zong Rinpoche told Peter Kedge the toys were “for my next life.”

The 1978 tour was finally over and Lama Yeshe could go home. But where exactly did he belong, this Tibetan refugee who cheered the loneliest hearts wherever he went? In the United States he was an American, in Italy he became an Italian. Without exception he treated all who came to him for advice as if they were family. Maybe home was where his gurus were, in India.

From Lama Yeshe’s talks in Ibiza, Spain, in 1978:

The lam-rim actually teaches us that everything we see…on the television, the wind blowing, the movement of the ocean…all these are a teaching on karma. The lam-rim teaches reality. Time is changing. Summer changes to autumn, autumn changes to winter, and winter changes to spring. All these changes, all this movement shows the impermanent nature of reality. We should learn from these teachings that the world brings us constant change. In the same way that these things change, so do I. We haven’t yet understood this. We should understand that every movement that we see, every movement that exists in the entire world is showing you reality. When we watch something on television, we see it as a fantasy. Instead of seeing it as presenting the evolution of cause and effect, we are shaking with fantasy and become even more deluded. Are we communicating? But if we have Dharma wisdom, when we watch movies or television, we see that these are showing us cause and effect in the evolution of samsara. Unfortunately, we aren’t generally able to see actual reality. We only see things in a polluted way, and so we become more deluded.

      Every movement of karma has a reason. Every movement of karma is connected, is an evolutionary link. So if you understand that, then you understand karma! Your mind transforms, your body transforms, your nervous system transforms; they are all changing, changing, changing. You can see karma. And when you can see karma, then you are aware of your actions—what you are supposed to do, what you shouldn’t do. You have some control of your own mind. You become more discriminating with regard to your own behavior. Then it becomes the practice of Dharma. If you are unconscious about your own actions, if you don’t know what you are doing, then there is no way you can see what action brings what result. Not being able to see clean clear which results come from which attitude or action is actually a cause of your continuing ignorance. This is not Dharma practice.

      Being mindfully aware of all your own actions throughout all the hours of the day, from the time you get up in the morning until you go to sleep—that is even more profound than doing some kind of meditation in the morning. The reason I’m saying this is that Western people are so interested in meditation. They love meditation, love to talk about meditation, but they don’t love it when Lama explains karma. Karma is strong, strong. “Karma is… well…that’s too heavy for us !” But our body, speech and mind is heavy already. It’s not your lama who makes them heavy. They are already heavy. This is why understanding karma is very important. Meditation is okay. But even if you are unable to meditate it’s all right. My meditation is that as much as possible I try to be aware of my own actions. I dedicate my day as much as possible to other people. Whatever I am involved in I try to have loving kindness and be sympathetic to others and I try not to take advantage of others as much as possible. This is my meditation. I observe my own body and speech; this is my meditation. Actually that is more precise and realistic than, “Oh, I’m meditating on tantra…”

  Lama Yeshe, Kopan, 1981    Actually this is a very simple thing. Today even though we are here, our mind is not actually living here. Already we are thinking, “After the course I’ll…bla, bla, da da da…” Our body is here but our mind is already in the future, after the course, not living in the present, not living in the moment. We never pay full attention to each other in this present moment. For example, while I’m talking to you people, my mind is thinking of Tibet. I’m not with you. This is wrong! Each day, when you get up in the morning, remember, “Today I am alive. How fortunate that I am alive today. I can do much better than dogs or chickens because I have the dignity of human power. I have better understanding. So as much as possible today I’ll be aware and keep my body, speech and mind clean clear. I will communicate a good vibration to sentient beings, and dedicate my life to reach the highest destination—enlightenment.” By generating this dedicated attitude in the morning, by the power of your mind you bring great space to your day. In this way the power of your mind keeps you from becoming angry. By living in an awareness of the present moment, it brings a kind of total relaxation, rather than fooling yourself.


I feel like some cheesecake

From  1978: Mahayana, Mahayana, Mahayana! by Adele Hulse, Big Love author:

(12946_pr.jpg) photo by Robbie SolickZong Rinpoche and Lama Zopa Rinpoche embarked on a tour of Canada. They were scheduled to be at Geshe Sopa’s Deer Park center from 17 June to 16 July, and Ama Lobsang was to join them for the last two weeks. The Californians piled into cars and headed for Wisconsin while Lama Yeshe went off to Seattle with Jon Landaw for a break and to attend more English classes. Pam Cowan, now a lawyer, arranged for them to stay in a very nice house belonging to a federal judge she knew. While there Lama Yeshe received two empowerments from Dezhung Rinpoche, one of the Sakya lamas with whom he had escaped to India from Tibet. Lama requested him to give bodhisattva vows at Vajrapani Institute the following year.

Pam and her husband, Steve, picnicked with Lama Yeshe, took him to the zoo and to some wonderful botanical gardens in Vancouver, British Columbia. They even took him sailing. “Such was his enthusiasm for the tiller we nearly ran aground several times,” said Pam. “He often came over to our house and brought me flowers from the judge’s garden. I was always watching his diet and his health but he was extremely partial to cheesecake. I had a cat called Yeshe and he thought it was very funny when I yelled, ‘Yeshe! Get off the table!’

“I knew Lama wasn’t in good health. One evening when he came over for dinner I was thinking to myself that if he died I would be so honored to be his next mother. Of course I didn’t share this with him but Lama suddenly started laughing and very lovingly said, ‘You can’t be my mother because you would never let me go!’  I was quite rattled by the interchange!”

Continuing, Pam said, “Steve and I were planning a trip to Indonesia. Lama thought this was a crazy idea. He couldn’t understand wanderlust at all. He said we should stay at home, have children, be good practitioners and cut out this restless activity.”

“Years earlier before leaving Nepal,” Pam later recalled, “I had told Lama I wanted to become a nun. He’d laughed and said I would be a householder with three children!  After Steve and I had two sons we decided not to have more children, and I remember thinking at least that was one thing Lama hadn’t known. But three years later I had my daughter!”

"Wellie Wanging" with Lama, 1979Many years later, Jon still had vivid memories of an incident that happened one night while Lama and he were staying at the judge’s house. “He said to me, ‘I feel like some cheesecake.’ I told him it was pretty late and all the shops were probably closed. He replied, ‘Let’s call Pam and Steve and maybe they’ll invite us over for some.’ So I dialed their number and passed him the phone. Just then a mischievous look appeared on Lama’s face and I wondered what prank we were in store for. I could hear Pam answer and then Lama said in a slow, sad voice, ‘Oh hello, dear. I just thought you should know—the house caught on fire.’ I could hear Pam’s panicked voice saying something. Lama continued, ‘There’s smoke everywhere.’ Pam must have asked to speak to me, because the next thing Lama said was, ‘He can’t come to the phone, dear. He’s sitting in the corner, crying.’

“Knowing how hysterical Pam would be at the thought of the judge’s home being destroyed, I decided to put an immediate end to this pretence and grabbed the phone out of Lama’s hand. After assuring Pam the whole thing was a joke, I gave the phone back to Lama. She told him she and Steve were now fully awake and wouldn’t be going to sleep any time soon, so maybe Lama and I should drive over there. Lama put down the phone, turned to me triumphantly and said, ‘See! I told you they would invite us over for cheesecake!’

“When we arrived at their house a little while later Pam stormed out, still in her dressing gown, went right up to Lama, waved a finger in his face and cried, ‘Lama, don’t you ever do that again!’”

Lama Yeshe worked hard in his English classes, writing notes such as, “America was discover by Colompa.” On one occasion, his English teacher gave the students an assignment to write and perform an advertisement for a product in front of the class. Lama’s ad was for Jasmine Soap, which had all sorts of amazing abilities to make its user attractive to others. The last line of Lama’s ad, which he read in a voice that mimicked pitchmen on TV, was the following: “The Queen of England uses Jasmine Soap and her husband loves her, and he doesn’t know why!”
One of the things about advertising that intrigued Lama Yeshe was its use of exaggeration. He once said, “In the West it is incredible how everything is exaggerated so the deluded mind is made certain to pay attention to it. ‘Look at this, how fantastic it is!’ This technique is used so extensively that even when we give a meditation course we have to advertise, ‘Come to our fantastic meditation and learn all about your amazing mind!’” After this observation he added, “Western culture seems a little too much for me.”

04406_sl_BGLama’s English classes were held in the morning and sometimes Jon had to wake him. “One morning I knocked on his door,” reported Jon, “and there was no answer, so I opened it, went over and touched his arm. Later, he told me I shouldn’t wake him up in this way but should instead make a sound by knocking on the door or playing a damaru (small hand drum) gently and then gradually let the sound grow louder. Although Lama Yeshe was certainly not averse to physical contact, he definitely did not want to be woken up by touch. As Lama Zopa Rinpoche has explained, the deep “sleeps” that Lama went into were actually a practice of profound meditative absorption and it could be dangerous to be aroused too suddenly from such a deep state.

“So the next day, when it was time to wake him up, I did as he had instructed me. I knocked and knocked, slowly increasing the volume, but there was no reply. Finally I opened the door a crack to see what was up and there was Lama, sprawled out on the bed, looking as if he were dead. I burst out laughing because I could see straight away he was fooling. And he immediately started laughing, too. This act of pretending to be dead was something he did on many occasions. It was very realistic and he only opened his eyes when people started to panic. It seemed clear that he wanted us to get used to the fact of mortality—his and our own.”

Lama had made a promise to a student at Lawudo to visit his Seattle herb shop, Tenzing Momo, in one year. He kept his promise. “It was one year to the day,” said Bradley Dobos, the happy shop owner. “He walked in by himself, just before closing time. Suddenly the whole store seemed to be bathed in white light.”

People were constantly looking for evidence of supernatural powers in this extraordinary, enchanting and irrepressible Tibetan lama. He seemed to be able to read the future, change the weather at will and appear to be in two places at once, but they were never completely sure. Real magic, Lama Yeshe kept saying, involves learning to control one’s own mind. Still, every once in a while he would demonstrate a trick or two.

Like this one. Having completed several Kopan courses Jimi Neal decided he wanted to become a monk. But he didn’t want to become a beggar as well. With Lama Yeshe’s permission he took a job as a bus driver in Seattle. At the time he believed that Lama had already left the United States, a rumor that had been deliberately spread in order to give Lama some space.

09379_sl_BG“I had just started my second year on the job,” Jimi explained. “I drove the night shift because I liked the silence and the crazy people who used buses then. Very late one night I was way out at the end of the line in a fancy neighborhood and staring into the dark when suddenly this apparition appeared right in front of me. It was Lama Yeshe standing alone in a field just a little to the side of the bus. I thought it must be my hallucination. It was the middle of the night, he had no attendant and besides, he wasn’t even in the country. But there he was. He even turned and looked at me. So I stopped the bus and looked back at him. A couple of passengers started asking what I thought I was doing. I didn’t really know, but then the image just disappeared.”

Jimi continued his story. “A couple of days later I got a call from Pam Cowan inviting me to dinner. ‘Lama’s going to be there, isn’t he?’ I said. ‘How did you know?’ she exclaimed. It had been a very well-kept secret. We ended up having a really nice evening. I went into a separate room with Lama and we talked for a couple of hours. He told me he was really glad I was working so I didn’t have to ask others for money. Later on I heard that at a couple of courses he spoke about seeing me in the bus. He often said if he could just get his students to see that things do not exist the way they appear, that would be good enough.”

“Good enough, dear” was one of Lama Yeshe’s most encouraging and comforting expressions. When Lama said it, it conveyed a kind of profound caring acceptance of both one’s efforts and one’s limitations. Lama’s Western students might have been able to discuss emptiness, bodhicitta, the qualities of enlightenment and the like, borrowing descriptions from scholarly works, but to actually live in the realizations of emptiness or bodhicitta was far beyond most of them. Nevertheless, they were earnestly trying and Lama was especially brilliant at acknowledging their efforts.


I hit you, my problem. You get angry, your trouble.

From  1978: Mahayana, Mahayana, Mahayana! by Adele Hulse, Big Love author:

Lama at Shantiniketan, 1979While in Dharamsala, Lama’s student Gyatso (Dr. Adrian Feldmann) took Lama down to a big hospital in Lower Dharamsala for a medical check-up. “The X-rays revealed Lama’s heart was so massively enlarged it filled his chest cavity,” reported Adrian. “Non-functioning heart valves make a lot of noise, a whooshing sound. I listened to it with the Indian doctors who all shook their heads very solemnly. It was a very frustrating day. The staff took ages to do anything and I was becoming increasingly irritated—until I caught Lama’s eye. That was enough to quiet me because in that moment I saw his fragility and the power he used to simply stay alive.”

At this time Gyatso was in charge of shopping at Tushita Retreat Centre, but he wasn’t especially good at bargaining. “One lovely day Lama came outside and said to me, ‘I take you shopping!’ He stood right out in the street and took over completely, ordering this and that and bargaining the price down hard every time. Everyone just stood around and watched him. You could see the sellers were really happy to do business with a real pro! He showed me that to get what you want you have to be strong.”

That February, a foot of snow lay on the ground when a dozen Injis showed up to do a four-week Green Tara retreat. Among them was Sylvia Wetzel, the German feminist from Berlin. “Lama began doing a retreat of his own at the same time, yet every day he would check up on us, making sure we were not too tense, too silent, too uptight. Some evenings he came in with some chocolate and asked each one of us how we were doing, often recommending specific foods for certain people,” said Sylvia.

Australian Robina Courtin, dressed in nuns’ robes, had also arrived from Kopan to participate in the retreat, having received her rabjung vows from Lama Zopa Rinpoche at the beginning of February. Lama Yeshe then organized a getsul ordination ceremony for Robina and two others—Vicky from Sydney, Australia, and Stefano Piovella—which was to take place on March 9. As Robina recalled later, “Lama had requested Ling Rinpoche, His Holiness’s senior tutor, whose house was a five-minute walk from Tushita, to run the ceremony but Rinpoche was busy, so Tarab Tulku gave us the vows. As it was a novice ordination, there needed to be at least five fully ordained monks [there were no fully ordained nuns in the Tibetan tradition at the time], so Lama and Rinpoche were two of the five. I was very glad they were there! Afterwards, out back near Tushita’s kitchen, my friend Sylvia Wetzel grabbed her camera, handed me a rhododendron, which flourish in the area, and took a photo.”

Dr. Adrian at the People's Clinic

Dr. Adrian Feldmann at the People’s Clinic

“At Kopan and Tushita all we wanted to do was study, learn Tibetan and practice becoming saints,” Pelgye continued, “but Lama wanted bricklayers, toilet-cleaners, English teachers, gardeners and business people. When we complained he would tell us, ‘Fine. If you don’t want to do all these things, if you just want to be in retreat then I’ll go back to the mountains and do retreat too.’

“But if that happened, who would answer our questions? Lama laid great emphasis on the fact that he had worked hard to provide this opportunity for us. If we didn’t want to work so others could also hear the teachings, well then, he’d be happy to stay in retreat for the rest of his life. On the other hand, if we helped him build centers he would always help us. We would discover when to do our own long retreats in our own good time.”

Pelgye went on. “One day at Kopan I witnessed Lama Yeshe swatting two young boys who had been caught playing hooky. He ordered them to bend over and brought this bamboo ski-pole whizzing down through the air. Crack! I was aghast. Catching my eye Lama gestured for me to come forward, bend over and get whacked too. I found the cane made a lot of noise but didn’t really hurt; it was just a good show. I straightened up and thanked him politely. He gave me a fierce look and said, ‘That’s right. If I hit you, that’s my trouble. If you get angry, that’s your trouble.’ I got the message. It seemed like a really core teaching on karma.”

Lama is so very proud of you!

From  1978: Mahayana, Mahayana, Mahayana! by Adele Hulse, Big Love author:

Lama teaching at UCSC, 1978, vol. 2Lama Yeshe had expressed a desire for an American university “experewence” on many occasions. In the spring of 1978, Jan Willis was able to fulfill Lama’s wish. She arranged for him to teach a course on Tibetan Buddhism at the University of California’s Oakes College on the Santa Cruz campus during the spring quarter, which ran approximately from mid-March through the end of May. He was to teach Jan’s UC Santa Cruz class while she took up an appointment as a Visiting Lecturer at Wesleyan University.

“We had to locate some Tibetan documents in order to prove that Lama really was highly educated,” said Jan. “Everything was very easy to arrange, probably because Lama was so keen to do it. He lived in student housing not far from Robbie and Randy Solick who lived in the apartments designated for married students. Robbie was appointed Lama’s official teaching assistant with Jon Landaw acting informally as a second assistant. Robbie and Jon led discussions and helped students with Buddhist terminology. Lama was to lecture two mornings a week and be available for interviews in his office on Wednesday afternoons.”

Being responsible for the shopping at Kopan had given Ngawang Chötak enough expertise to land a job in California as a purchasing officer. Unfortunately, his employer was going broke, so as a result Chötak was free to move into Lama’s apartment, sleeping upstairs in a little room off the kitchen.

“One of his little games was to lie on his bed and play dead when I came into the room. It scared the hell out of me but he thought it was a great joke. He wouldn’t study too much for his lectures because he knew exactly what to tell them. He spent a lot of time looking at magazines and had me read him some long articles. He also watched Roots on TV.

“Many, many people came to see him. Judy Weitzner always had access. He was
indefatigable and worked me to death. He’d want tea for twelve people at 2:00 am or it would be something else. But he was just bliss to be with.”

Chötak continued. “One day I took him along to a Hopi Indian reservation and told him their prophecy about us all coming to the end of what they call the ‘fourth world.’ According to the Hopi, people will not be able to travel around so much anymore and many other aspects of life as we know it will disappear. ‘I think they’re right. Why do you think I travel around the world introducing Mahayana in so many different places at once?’ said Lama.”

Karuna Cayton’s younger sister, Lori, enrolled in Lama’s class and moved into the student building directly opposite his apartment. “My thing was always just to sit and watch him,” she said. “The course was held in a small auditorium. Jon Landaw pushed a table up against the blackboard and placed a Tibetan carpet and a cushion on it. Lama came in, climbed right up onto the table and sat down.”

Lama teaching at UCSC, 1978, vol. 2He was a hit from the very first session and his lectures were packed. The Vajrapani people gate-crashed every one, driving in from their primitive huts and showering in the university gym. They were careful not to act devotionally, which would have been inappropriate in a college atmosphere. There were no prostrations or the traditional offering of khatas, flowers or incense, but whenever Lama entered the auditorium, always from the back of the room, the whole audience automatically stood as one. No one in America stands for professors. On the first day the students didn’t even know he was in robes until he got down to the front of the room. Nevertheless, they all stood up, every day.

Lama’s course was a survey of the origin, evolution and spread of Buddhism, placing special emphasis on the lives of Shakyamuni Buddha and later Indian masters. Given that Lama himself was an active participant in the present-day movement of Buddhism from Asia into Western cultures, not surprisingly his course also examined the various ways that the Buddhist teachings had moved from India into the very foreign culture of Tibet. This included an exploration of the history and development of the various schools of Buddhist thought and the differences between them. At the end of each session Lama answered questions. To one student who claimed that working for others to gain merit was self-interest, Lama replied, “I can only work for my own enlightenment.” To those who raised objections or who expressed opposing views he said, “Good! I like debate.”

“He answered every individual question all 150 of us could come up with,” said Debra Lockwood. “Lama Yeshe treated us all as equals and gave each of us a voice. He also instilled in me the possibility of attaining enlightenment in a single lifetime because the complete teachings for doing that were all at hand. He could also be outrageous. He related directly with the students, but strictly within the boundaries of his Vinaya vows. No wine, women and song.” Debra Lockwood, Kevin Ergil and Greg Hillis were among the few students at that course to go to Kopan.

During office hours Lama Yeshe patiently listened to everyone’s tales of woe—horrible divorces and family traumas. He saw anybody at any time and Robbie Solick often had to step in to ensure he got some time for himself. “He was so powerful,” said one new student. “I loved to watch him being so patient with people with whom I had absolutely no patience at all.”

One afternoon Bill Kane, a Vajrapani resident, jumped the interview queue. “I was suffering from the most painful stress and told Lama I was freaking out! ‘Oh, don’t worry,’ said Lama, ‘you think Guru Shakyamuni doesn’t have an answer to your problem? You do tummo [inner heat] meditation, take some nice walks and relax.’ When I got up to leave he grabbed me, said some mantras and started blowing on my heart. I nearly blacked out. I don’t know how to tell you this but right in front of me he turned into Vajradhara. After a few minutes of this he said, ‘Okay, goodbye, dear’, and went back to being Lama. I know he released something in my heart that day. I could feel it,” he said.

“One day in a lecture Lama did a little snap of the fingers and twist of the wrist and pointed in my direction, causing the greatest delight I have ever experienced,” said another student. “It was like the floor dropped out from under me and what was left was this exhilarating joy. Lama Yeshe was known as a populist but he was really a master of the yogic requirement of ‘super-hiding,’ of never revealing one’s practice or realizations. He was so much more than a sweetie-pie. Outwardly he taught us lam-rim, but secretly he taught the highest tantric practice to those who could fix their thoughts on him. Superficially he was a nice Buddhist monk, but inwardly he was a miracle-making mahasiddha [a highly realized meditator] of the first order.”

Lama teaching at UCSC, 1978, vol. 2The student continued his account. “Some time later I found Lama Yeshe could enter my dream states. I was sleeping and Lama was far away. I heard a telephone ring and then Lama was in my dream. I was convinced he was performing initiations. When I asked Lama Zopa Rinpoche about it he got excited, but pretended he didn’t quite understand what I was saying. Geshe Rabten was even cooler about it, indicating that such things happen all the time. But all I had to do was think about Lama Yeshe and there was an automatic response in me.”

“Lama was forever telling his students what to do,” Robbie Solick explained. “He’d say, ‘You be a monk,’ ‘You go into retreat,’ ‘You do this or that.’ One day I asked him why he never told me what I ought to do. He said, ‘Your family is your responsibility and Dharma practice right now. It is not necessary for me to tell you what to do.’ Randy and I both got that message so we made no demands on his time.

The academic year at Wesleyan, where Jan Willis was teaching, ended earlier than that at UCSC, and so Lama Yeshe invited Jan to come and give a guest lecture in his class. Jan described her experience in detail in her book, Dreaming Me. “Lama Yeshe briefly introduced me to the class, then took a seat among the students,” Jan wrote. “I gave a lecture that compared the sacred life stories (called nam-thar in Tibetan) of two of the most famous Buddhist yogis, Naropa and Milarepa. I began by first writing the term nam-thar on the blackboard on Tibetan. The students seemed impressed by the beauty of the script as well as by my general remarks concerning how such spiritual biographies work to impart, in narrative and aesthetic form, the essence of practice. I proceeded to narrate each of the yogis’ lives—with all the facial, hand and body gestures I am famous for—and then to compare and contrast certain details of the stories. The time flew by and I was in my element. When I finished, the hundred or so students gave me a standing ovation. Just before the class’s question-and-answer period, Lama Yeshe beckoned me over to him. He was beaming like a proud father. When I leaned near to him I could see that tears were streaming down his cheeks. Lifting his robe to partially cover his face, he whispered to me, ‘Lama is so very proud of you!’ I thought my heart would burst wide open. It seemed at that moment that this was the assurance I had been waiting for all my life.”

As usual Lori Cayton was watching carefully. “Lama was just so radiant. You could tell this was ‘his child’ and that he was extremely proud of her.”

Be Slow, Go Deep

17513_slFrom  1978: Mahayana, Mahayana, Mahayana! by Adele Hulse, Big Love author:

In January Lama Yeshe and Lama Zopa Rinpoche left for Bodhgaya to attend His Holiness the Dalai Lama’s annual teachings. Lama Lhundrup, Lama Pasang, Geshe Jampa Gyatso and a group of devoted students accompanied them, while Geshe Tsering remained at Kopan as acting abbot.

His Holiness taught in Tibetan for four hours every morning and every afternoon Alex Berzin translated it all into English. That took another four hours. The Westerners, seated behind thousands of Tibetans, didn’t understand a word of the morning teachings, so one day during lunch a brave soul asked Lama Yeshe if it was necessary for them to sit through them. Garrey Foulkes recalled Lama’s wrathful reaction. “It was one of the few times I ever saw him show anger. He couldn’t believe that a student of his would ever think of missing an opportunity to sit in the presence of His Holiness. I felt a great relief that it wasn’t me who had asked the question, because any of us could have.”

Geshe Thubten Tsering

Geshe Thubten Tsering

“Back then Westerners often sat for hours listening to teachings in Tibetan,” said Peter Kedge. “We just sat there hoping somehow to absorb some blessings, which I’m sure we did. It certainly felt as though we did. But compared to teachings in the twenty-first century, where simultaneous multi-language translations are broadcast directly into headphones, or where you can pick up a copy of the teachings as you walk out the door, it was a different world back then.”

Bodhgaya was bustling with monks and Max Redlich watched everything going on around him. “His Holiness gave a talk under the Bodhi tree to all the geshes and I saw how they packed themselves so tightly into such a small space. One geshe was asked a question and it appeared his answer was wrong. Afterwards I saw Lama walking along in his Dr. Scholl’s sandals with that geshe, punching him in the shoulder and pushing him roughly in that typical debating style of theirs. It often looks as if they are about to have a knock-down fight, but of course they never do.”

Elea Redel, from France, was in Bodhgaya simply because her Nepalese visa had expired. “I was never a hippie and all that overt Buddhist devotion did not appeal to me. I mentioned this to a friend there who said, ‘Ha ha! Lama Yeshe is here just for you!’ I agreed to meet him, but when someone told me to take a khata as an offering I got irritated. If he was going to be offended because I failed to bring a khata, he was definitely not for me.

MEC students in Bodhgaya, India, 1974

“At our meeting Lama told me I couldn’t accept just anyone as my teacher and that I should ‘check up.’ I liked that. I told him I could not go around prostrating or with a mala in my hands. ‘Buddhism is an inner attitude,’ he explained. ‘You don’t have to do those things, but also you don’t know what others feel when they do them. So you do it when you feel like it.’ That was exactly what I wanted to hear. I took refuge with him the following morning.”

“Mahayana, Mahayana, Mahayana!” Lama taught. “Saying 100,000 mantras or not, doing prayers the wrong way, breaking this or that vow—the main thing to concentrate on is Mahayana, Mahayana, Mahayana!” The point of prayer and ritual was not to become an expert in Buddhism but to develop the essence of Mahayana, the warm-hearted bodhicitta attitude of truly caring for all sentient beings equally. Aware that some students considered the Gelug lineage too intellectual, focusing only on study, Lama told them, “We may be slow, but we go deep.”

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