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The 8th Kopan Meditation Course

Group photo, Kopan, 1975From 1975: We Need a Foundation by Adele Hulse, Big Love author:

Two hundred people turned up for the eighth course, many of them veterans of several courses already. The more long-term students were increasingly serious about learning to control their minds and stop harming others. Marcel was appointed as the course leader and Jon Landaw was requested to conduct the discussions. “Lama didn’t give me any particular instructions,” said Jon. “He just threw me in there.” Yeshe Khadro, Thubten Pemo, Sangye Khadro, and John Feuille all returned to Kopan from a three-month Manjushri retreat at Lawudo to attend the meditation course.

Adrian Feldmann came to the course from his one-room cabin in the Australian bush where he had been doing solitary retreat. During his retreat he had not seen a single person. “I’d followed Lama Yeshe’s advice and started writing him letters when questions arose, but I never finished one of them. As soon as I started writing the answers just came to me. After the retreat I wrote to Lama and asked when I could become a monk. He told me to come to the course.”

Among the new students attending this course was John Cayton, an American college student. He was one of a group of undergraduates from The Evergreen State College in Washington State, USA, who had come to Nepal to engage in individual research. Most people called him Karuna; he had been given that name by a Hindu guru a few years previously. On his first night at Kopan he dreamed of a lama bowing and smiling at him in greeting. “The next morning I was going to breakfast and I saw this lama walking by, bowing to everyone and smiling. It was Lama Yeshe; he was the one I had seen in my dream. I’d never even seen a photo of him before,” said Karuna.

Andy Weber, who was studying thangka painting in Boudhanath, had met Lama Yeshe in Bodhgaya in 1974. This was his first Kopan course. “I didn’t like the first day—those pretentious Americans with their backpacks and superdown gear and polite palaver. Everyone looked so rich and neat,” Andy remembered. “It was like being at college in the West. The day before the course started I was standing beside the gompa looking down into the valley and wondering whether to stay. I turned around and there was Lama Yeshe’s beaming face at the window. He just nodded to me, but I felt a thud of blessed energy. I knew then that I had to stay. But I thought Marcel was a pain in the neck. Sometimes I just had to go down to Boudha for a chillum.

“I got very depressed during Lama Zopa Rinpoche’s teachings. The only reason I stayed was because Lama Yeshe occasionally dropped in and gave one of his blissful talks, and because he sometimes called me to his room for a chat. His was the message we all wanted to hear. However, we also knew that we first had to walk the path Lama Zopa Rinpoche was pointing out, the same path Lama Yeshe had followed.”

Five friends from the seventh course had spent the year together in Dharamsala and had then returned to Kopan for more. “We were a wild bunch,” said Jimi Neal. Wildest of all was an intense young Italian, Stefano Piovella. “A lot of people at Kopan were very straight. They didn’t like Stefano because he was such a hippie,” said Jimi. “He spent most of the course crashed out in the front row looking totally out of it. Then every now and then he would jump up with the most amazingly profound or poignant questions. He just adored Lama Zopa Rinpoche. He told me that he was amazed at Lama Yeshe’s deep understanding of Italian psychology and culture after he had spent only two weeks in Italy.”

Some months later the somewhat unpredictable but charismatic Stefano was ordained by His Holiness the Karmapa. “Ha ha ha! You! A monk!” everybody exclaimed. “I’m glad you did it,” said Lama. “You’ll last two months.” And he did—to the day. Stefano later took ordination again, and disrobed again.

Jimi Neal was present on the day a student arrived at Kopan on a huge BMW motorbike. “Lama Yeshe might have seen one before but he certainly hadn’t ridden one,” said Jimi. “He got on it, put his hands and feet in the right places, and hunkered down as though the wind was tearing at his face. Marcel Marceau had nothing on him—he was a magnificent actor and a superb mimic.”

One person who didn’t show up for the course was the lamas’ Lake Arrowhead driver Teresa Knowlton, a devout and cheerful young girl from Seattle. Teresa had planned to take ordination and was expected to arrive at Kopan with gardening tools and a typewriter. Time magazine was one of the very few Western publications regularly available in Nepal and Lama Yeshe usually had the latest copy. One day he pointed to a paragraph about an Indian-Vietnamese man, Charles Sobhraj, who had murdered a number of young travelers and stolen their cash and passports, apparently for the sheer excitement of it. Among his victims, found drowned on a beach in Thailand, was Teresa Knowlton. “She wanted to practice Dharma,” said Lama, “but she never reached here.” The message was clear—anything can happen, so use your time well.

More new monks and nuns

Adrian Feldmann was preparing to take robes. His girlfriend was at Kopan and tried to get the lad to spend one last romantic weekend with her at the lovely lakeside town of Pokhara. “I had to check up very deeply,” said Adrian. “I took my girlfriend up to the astrologer’s hill and pointed to the North Star. ‘See that star?’ I said. ‘It never moves and the whole universe moves around it. It is the same as my determination to be a monk.’ She cried a bit and we had one last kiss and cuddle.”

Most of those seeking ordination had already received “Dharma names,” but Adrian hadn’t. He hadn’t even taken the five lay vows that were often given together with refuge. Lama Yeshe gave these vows to Adrian and to Scott Brusso, who also hadn’t yet received all five vows. Then Lama closed his eyes for a moment and gave Adrian the name Thubten Gyatso.

Elisabeth Drukier was on the way to becoming Lama’s first French nun. “I’m not sure about French people,” Lama told her, “I don’t know so many.” George Churinoff went to see Lama Zopa Rinpoche about whether to become ordained. “He told me, ‘For you it would be good.’ So that was that. I thought that becoming a monk was really the only way I could practice Dharma and I had no relationship responsibilities,” said George.

These three—Adrian, Elisabeth, and George—together with several more of Kopan’s Western students, were slated to be ordained by in Dharamsala early in 1976.

In the meantime, however, Lama Yeshe unexpectedly announced on November 17 that a preliminary rabjung ceremony would take place the very next day. This was the third group of Lama Yeshe’s students to request getsul ordination and Lama wanted to ensure that their monastic future was well planned. By receiving the eight barma rabjung vows early they would have some experience of having lived together as Sangha before committing themselves to the thirty-six getsul vows. On that day, George Churinoff, Adrian Feldmann, Elisabeth Drukier, Electric Roger, Karin Valham, Roger Wheeler, Peter Kedge, Scott Brusso, Suzi Albright, and Margaret McAndrew received barma rabjung ordination together. After the ceremony Lama told them, “From now on I am your girlfriend, your boyfriend, your mummy, your daddy, your teacher and your best friend. You have no worries. Now you have a big party!”

“We went down to the Sangha gompa, which was the big room in the old house,” said Adrian. “There was a big table of food and Lama insisted that we sing and dance and play music, all of which are alien practices for ordained people. So we got out the few cassette tapes that we still had, such as the Rolling Stones and Bob Dylan, and drank lemonade and ate biscuits. We didn’t actually sing and dance and Lama didn’t come to the party.”

Lama Yeshe gave several talks to the Sangha about how to live together as a community. He also had them give Dharma talks to each other in the evenings, with question-and-answer sessions, in this way training his monks and nuns to eventually be able to teach in the West.

 

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Ann McNeil Supervises Construction and does Retreat

Anila Ann and Max Mathews, 1972From 1972: Unsurpassed Dharma Land of Enlightenment by Adele Hulse, Big Love author:

Anila Ann took over supervision of the Kopan building site. When the lamas returned from Dharamsala, she went down to Kathmandu to do the banking, a day’s work on its own. “I asked Lama Yeshe if he’d keep track of the workers’ hours for me that day so I would know what to pay them,” she said. “They were all paid daily because they were very poor and we never knew exactly how many workers we would need each day. That night when I asked Lama for the pay book I saw he’d only put down two figures; the rest was just scribble. Well, this just blew my mind! How was I going to pay these people now? ‘Don’t worry,’ said Lama, ‘I’ll work it all out with them tomorrow.’ But I was upset; I said that even the Buddha would have kept track! It was the worst thing I could think of saying. With that I marched off to my room. Twenty minutes later there was a tap on the door. It was Lama with a glass of lemonade,” said Ann.

Ann then went into a retreat, during which she grew very miserable and lost her appetite—not a safe thing to do in Nepal under any circumstances but especially because she was already extremely lean. But the mind that rises in retreat is not always blissful. In fact, the arising mind may focus on precisely the mental habit that is most painful to the ego—such as jealousy or anger. Lama Yeshe began eating his supper with her, treating her as if she were a toddler. He made excited noises about how delicious the food was and tried to tempt her to take a few spoonfuls. “I was finally able to see how belligerent I’d become and was able to unhook that feeling and get my appetite back,” she said.

Toward the end of her retreat Lama Yeshe was due to return to Dharamsala, but first he gave Ann a Vajrasattva thangka he had commissioned for her. “We stood there looking at it together and I noticed he was ‘beaming’ again—that unearthly golden glow that sometimes emanated from him. I looked back at the thangka, then at him again. Each time he looked even more radiant and so shiny. I just stared and stared.

“He was always so subtle with me. During that business at Kathmandu airport with the hand-painted text, I developed what I can only call a very hot ear. It went blazing red for a while and felt so hot. That experience came to herald some form of communication from Lama Yeshe. I’d get a hot ear at 2:00 am and think, ‘Lama wants something.’ I’d go to his room and he was never surprised to see me. It was always, ‘Oh yes, Anila, I have something for you to do!’

“Lama encouraged all kinds of awareness in us. He often gave us spoonfuls of the dutsi [Skt. amrita; blessed nectar] he kept on his altar. It was made of crushed blessed pills, honey, and alcohol. We’d sit there like little kids with outstretched palms, licking the stuff off. He’d roll his eyes back into his head and just beam.”

 

The Bodhgaya Teachings

Zina Rachevsky, 1971From 1971: The First Kopan Meditation Course by Adele Hulse, Big Love author:

The lamas always attended the Dalai Lama’s Bodhgaya teachings, but this was Zina’s first visit.

Ann and James traveled together, arriving at 3:00 in the morning. Bodhgaya was packed tight with Tibetans, but a Thai monk they met on the train invited them to stay at his temple. They were welcomed and given comfortable bunk beds. Monks and nuns always sleep in their long undershirts, and it simply never occurred to Ann, who was tall and very wiry, that they didn’t realize she was a woman. The lamas were staying at the Tibetan temple. Next morning, Ann and James hurried over there. “Lama,” said Ann, “they think I’m a monk. What am I going to do?” “Listen,” said Lama, “in the eyes of the Buddha there is no male and female; it doesn’t make any difference at all. Bodhgaya is full and there’s no place to stay, so just be quiet and don’t speak.” They returned to the Thai temple, but the following day some friends gave them a big room in the Dak Bungalow. Lama Yeshe and Zopa Rinpoche moved in there as well. In the room next door was an aristocratic woman from Darjeeling who had her servants prepare wonderful meals for them all.

Zina stayed at the best address in Bodhgaya, the Tourist Bungalow, which had bathrooms. Baba Ram Dass was paying for her room. He was in town attending a ten-day vipassana meditation course with the Burmese master, S. N. Goenka. Goenka, a layman and the most prominent student of the great master U Ba Khin, taught in English. His Vipassana courses consistently attracted many Westerners interested in learning meditation.

The lamas took their students to hear Kyabjé Trijang Rinpoche. At the time, Trijang Rinpoche was unwell and would teach while lying down. Next, they all received an initiation of the highest yoga tantra diety Yamantaka.

This was followed by a three-week teaching (in Tibetan) from Kyabjé Ling Rinpoche. The Westerners did not understand one word.

All through Ling Rinpoche’s incomprehensible teachings it became more and more apparent to Zina that Zopa Rinpoche needed to teach a course in English. Lama Yeshe always claimed that his own English was not good enough, that only Zopa Rinpoche could deliver such a course. Thinking of Goenka’s success, Zina suggested a ten-day course, but Rinpoche insisted that ten days wasn’t nearly enough time to teach anything and that the whole idea was ridiculous. Consequently, he wasn’t interested.

Bodhgaya was a social hub for the Tibetans. Lama Yeshe ran around meeting all sorts of old friends. At one such reunion he got into a debate and swung his mala so energetically that it broke, showering the crowd with beads. About twenty old friends from Sera were staying at the Tibetan monastery, among them Jampa Gyatso, who had become a full-fledged Lharampa geshe. Lama asked him if he was interested in teaching Westerners. “Not now,” replied Geshe Jampa Gyatso, “but I might consider it in the future.” Geshe Jampa Gyatso later
went to Italy at Lama Yeshe’s behest and became the beloved resident teacher at Istituto Lama Tzong Khapa near Pisa, residing there for twenty-seven years until his death in 2007.

Old friends teased Thubten Yeshe about mixing with Westerners, saying his main practice now appeared to be making money from Injis. One day Lama and Zopa Rinpoche produced bread and butter, tomatoes and such and started making sandwiches for themselves. None of the Tibetans had ever seen raw food prepared this way before. “What are you doing?” they asked. “Why won’t you spend money on food now that you are rich?”

The Inji students, eager for teachings in English, were happy to hear that Lama Yeshe had agreed to hold a question-and-answer session at the Tibetan temple. Among those attending were Alex Berzin and his childhood friend, Jon Landaw, both Americans from New Jersey who were in Bodhgaya attending teachings. Alex was one of the very few Westerners who had studied the Tibetan language before coming to India, and during the previous year he had lived in Dalhousie, studying with Geshe Ngawang Dhargyey. Jon had just arrived on his first visit to India and, once the winter had passed, he planned to go to Dalhousie to join his friend in studying with Geshe Dhargyey there. As for Geshe Dhargyey himself, he would soon be appointed by His Holiness the Dalai Lama to become the principal teacher at the new Library of Tibetan Works and Archives in Dharamsala. In 1972 he took up this position at the Library, which would eventually become a major study center for Westerners in India, and held it until 1984. In 1985 Geshe Dhargyey moved to New Zealand, where he resided until he passed away in 1995.

Jon was immediately overcome by his first sight of Lama Yeshe. “As soon as he walked into the room, smiling that wonderful smile of his, I experienced something I had never felt before,” Jon happily recalled. “It was as if iron filings filled my heart and Lama was a powerful electro-magnet that brought them to life, causing them to churn about and rearrange themselves. He was different from anyone I had ever met before and I liked him immediately. Although he appeared to be someone who had transcended the ordinary, he wasn’t at all otherworldly; instead, he was very human and I felt I could trust him completely. To say that his English was poor would be generous; in fact, it was very ‘broken,’ as he himself said, but I had never met anyone who could communicate so wonderfully. When he spoke about developing a ‘warm peeling,’ I did not understand his words at first. However, I soon realized he was talking about the ‘warm feeling’ that was growing within me at that very moment. Besides being so warm and clear, Lama was also very humorous. This endeared him to me immediately.”

The First Group Ordination

The first ordination, 1970From 1970: The First Group Ordination written by Adele Hulse, Big Love author:

From the Lama Yeshe’s teachings to his monks and nuns:

The reason we are unhappy is because we have extreme craving for sense objects, samsaric objects, and we grasp at them. We are seeking to solve our problems but we are not seeking in the right place. The right place is our own ego grasping; we have to loosen that tightness, that’s all.

According to the Buddhist point of view, monks and nuns are supposed to hold renunciation vows. The meaning of monks and nuns renouncing the world is that they have less craving for and grasping at sense objects. But you cannot say that they have already given up samsara, because monks and nuns still have stomachs! The thing is…the English word “renounce” is linguistically tricky. You can say that monks and nuns renounce their stomachs, but that doesn’t necessarily mean they actually throw their stomachs away.

So, I want you to understand that renouncing sensory pleasure doesn’t mean throwing nice things away. Even if you do, it doesn’t mean you have renounced them. Renunciation is a totally inner experience.

Renunciation of samsara does not mean you throw samsara away because your body and your nose are samsara. How can you throw your nose away? Your mind and body are samsara—well, at least mine are. So I cannot throw them away. Therefore, renunciation means less craving; it means being more reasonable instead of putting too much psychological pressure on yourself and acting crazy.

The important point for us to know, then, is that we should have less grasping at sense pleasures, because most of the time our grasping at and craving desire for worldly pleasure does not give us satisfaction. That is the main point. It leads to more dissatisfaction and to psychologically crazier reactions. That is the main point.

 

Both Kopan and Rana House were in chaos as the lamas, Zina, and the four students to be ordained organized their robes and gifts for the officiating monks. Lama Yeshe came back from Kathmandu with a huge stack of texts for His Holiness the Dalai Lama, including one particularly wide handwritten text containing many illustrations. The others were printed from woodblocks. He asked Ann to find suitcases to put them in.

At Kathmandu airport the customs officers were constantly on the lookout for antiques, which could not leave the country. The illustrated text was packed into a round case on its own, and Ann was nervous when they asked to see inside. “Okay, let me open it for you,” she suggested and swiftly turned to a page with no illustrations. “Max and Lama had both wandered off and disappeared at the end of the customs hall. Lama was spinning his mala so fast I knew he was up to something. The customs official looked at the page for a long moment, then said we could go through. When I joined the others, I could hardly breathe,” said Ann.

From Delhi, Zina, Sylvia, James and Zopa Rinpoche traveled to Dharamsala by train.

Max had arranged for herself, Lama Yeshe and Ann to fly, but they were grounded in Delhi due to a strike. It was late at night. A taxi driver at the airport approached Max and begged her to let him take them to Dharamsala—he remembered her from a trip to the Taj Mahal three years earlier. Even Delhi could be a small town, especially with regard to foreigners who tipped well. In the middle of the night they came to a state border barred by a gate and a sleeping sentry who could not be roused. “You must know some way around this,” Lama encouraged the driver, who then drove off the road and crossed the river below via boards and little islands.

Arriving in Dharamsala they took rooms at the local government guesthouse. These are called Dak Bungalows, or Dak Guesthouses, and can be found all over India. They were about to go and have breakfast when the Injis expressed some concerns about their unlockable doors. Padlocks were a necessity, and they hadn’t brought any. “This will do it,” said Lama Yeshe, wrapping his mala around the doorknob. “No one will have the nerve to take that off.” Later that day they moved into the famously seedy Hotel Kailash in McLeod Ganj, the village above Dharamsala—much to the visible disgust of the local monks. “Well, if you don’t like me being here, then you give me a better place,” Lama Yeshe told them. They shuffled away. Everyone in Dharamsala was on the thin edge of poverty, and they didn’t have a better place to offer.

Lama Yeshe organized everything. On the eve of the big day, Lama brought his students to an interview with His Holiness the Dalai Lama, seeking his approval and blessing. The next day, 16 December 1970, the ordination took place at Chopra House, Kyabjé Ling Rinpoche’s residence located on a hill just outside McLeod Ganj. Geshe Rabten presided as he had promised, along with Lama Yeshe, Gen Jampa Wangdu, and two other monks. Traditionally, four monks and an abbot are required for monastic ordination ceremonies.

Lama Zopa Rinpoche did not attend. The four Westerners received a short lecture in English on the vows they were about to take, but the ceremony itself was in Tibetan. They were instructed not to speak or ask questions. Whenever a response was required, Lama answered on their behalf. Afterward, everyone posed for photos.

 

 

Lama Yeshe tests Jan Willis

Geshe Rabten and Lama Yeshe, 1970From 1970: The First Group Ordination by Adele Hulse, Big Love author:

Jan Willis had a calculating, trained, academic mind. Other people were clearly besotted with Lama Yeshe, but she wondered if there might not be other lamas who were even better. One day Lama Yeshe told Jan to take the next level of her teachings (calm abiding, or shine practice) with Geshe Rabten in Dharamsala. “He is a very wise teacher; he is wisdom incarnate,” Lama told Jan. “You shouldn’t have any trouble because you can speak Hindi and travel easily. You go straight there, now.”

But Jan did not go straight there; she dallied awhile in Varanasi. When she finally arrived in Dharamsala, Geshe Rabten turned his big powerful face toward her, pointed his finger, and began to yell. “He was like a mountain on fire,” said Jan. She understood enough of what he said to realize that he was accusing her of not doing exactly what Lama Yeshe had ordered—that is, coming directly to Dharamsala. “He didn’t want to know my name or hear my story. He just wanted me to know I was there to study, had arrived late, and this was serious. I fell totally in love with him.”

Six weeks later, walking up Kopan hill at dusk, Jan Willis looked up to see Thubten Yeshe looking down at her, a disgusted expression on his face. Having made eye contact he turned and went into his room. “I felt bad as I entered,” she said. “I was about to make the usual respectful three prostrations when Lama turned and threw another dreadful tirade in Tibetan at me. Suddenly it struck me that there was absolutely no difference between these lamas, that they had exactly the same things to teach, and that Lama had sent me on this long trip just to find this out, to prove to me that with my critical judgmental mind maybe I was not so smart after all. My arrogance just crumbled. I fell forward on all fours, crying and begging him to please accept me as his disciple and to forgive me for measuring him against Geshe Rabten. That moment sealed my relationship with Lama Yeshe. I saw that his wisdom was as vast as his compassion.”

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