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The First Course at Chenrezig Institute

Lamas having lunch, 1975From 1975: We Need a Foundation by Adele Hulse, Big Love author:

Lama Yeshe gave two lectures in Brisbane before arriving at Chenrezig Institute in time for a month-long course, the second such meditation course held outside Nepal. One hundred and twenty people had enrolled for it. Anila Ann and her team had all but finished building the gompa on that steep empty land at Eudlo. The work had been done mainly by volunteers, qualified tradespeople turning up just in the nick of time and seemingly out of the blue. Ann had raised the money to pay for every plank and nail, though she was still living in the old shed.

Once again caravans were hired for the lamas and Mummy Max, who was not impressed. “I said to Lama, ‘Oh God, Lama, what karma you have! These camper trailers, no roads, no nothing.’ ‘It’s not for me, it’s for them,’ he told me,” recalled Max.

Lama had a big vision for this center. In 1974 he had told them, “Think big! Think big!” That year, a horse called Think Big had won the world-famous Melbourne Cup. In 1975 Think Big won the cup again. No one had thought to place a bet.

The course ran from May 5 to June 1. Mummy Max did not attend. Nor did Kathy Vichta, with whom Lama Yeshe spent some time cooking. “He showed me how to save time by squashing things with your hand instead of cutting them up. It worked just as well. He made a casserole one day by opening cans and just squashing the contents into bowls and saying mantras over them. Lama always said mantras while he cooked. He put so much physical energy into mundane stuff, like it was a really important part of his life,” said Kathy.

Lama’s students presented him with an electric razor, despite the fact that he had only about twenty whiskers. He preferred the Tibetan method of plucking them out with a small engraved brass clip during quiet breakfasts with Mummy Max.

Cameras always appeared when Lama Yeshe was around. Everyone loved new photos of him—dancing on the beach, sitting in meditation, laughing, playing. With the idea of commissioning a statue of Lama, Max arranged for a series of shots taken just of his head, from every angle. He posed for these graciously and without any self-consciousness.

Pete Northend and Colin Crosbie worked hard on the new building but Lama Yeshe wanted his wild-partying, hard-drinking shing-zö to enter a thirteen-year retreat. “I just couldn’t do it,” said Pete. “No way!”

Meanwhile, Electric Roger was thinking of becoming a monk. “I spoke to Lama Yeshe about it in Sydney. He said that I should check up whether I could renounce everything, even food. He said if I wasn’t ready to do that I could start up a center in Sydney. When I got to Chenrezig, I had an interview with him in the gompa. He was sitting alone in the middle of the room. I knew I was supposed to prostrate to him, but I still couldn’t bow down to a person. So I turned and prostrated to the altar instead. When I told him I wanted to take robes he just said, ‘Now or at Kopan?’ I said I’d come to Kopan.”

Lama Yeshe invited Mummy Max to give a talk on what had led her to take ordination. Max was not used to this kind of thing. Lama further honored her by insisting she sit on the teaching throne while speaking.

Peter Fenner arrived in time for one of Lama Zopa’s specialities, the death meditation. “It shifted something for me,” recounted Peter. “I knew about my dark side, so I loved the idea of purification. I met Lama Yeshe alone in the gompa and asked him to be my guru. I had a list of questions I didn’t even get to ask because he answered them anyway. In the space of about twenty minutes he also articulated the next twenty years of my life. He suggested I come and live at Chenrezig with my wife and daughter. ‘I want you to become a university professor and teach Dharma,’ he said. It wasn’t exactly what I was planning, but I had total confidence in him,” said Peter.

On 24 May 1975, Lama wrote a letter to Judy Weitzner in California, asking her to write the book His Holiness the Dalai Lama had requested, Tibetan People Today:

Please choose right name that is perfect, suitable and pays attention. Maybe make a documentary movie? Please you set up and organize. Should we adopt a legal name? You put your ideas together on paper and send to me in California.

“Lama had spoken to me about this book before,” said Judy. “I told him I didn’t think I could do much. ‘Yes, you can. You’re Chenrezig. You have a thousand arms and you can do what you want,’ was his reply. I went to Kopan to live in Max’s house and taught the boys English. I planned to meet Lama again in Switzerland,” said Judy. In her quiet way Judy Weitzner was actually a political firebrand. The Free Speech Movement, which developed into the anti-Vietnam War effort in America, had its origins in her Berkeley apartment. Judy produced the first ever Free Tibet bumper stickers, but the book Lama Yeshe described never saw the light of day.

A week before the end of the course, to celebrate the Buddha’s birthday (Saka Dawa), Lama Yeshe asked everyone to come outside after a Guru Puja and to meditate together on the hill behind the gompa. “Lama and Rinpoche sat above us, right on the top of the hill,” said Adrian Feldmann. “We meditated for about fifteen minutes during which time I had a very strong vision of four-armed Chenrezig and a green lady. At that time I didn’t know about Green Tara at all. I’ve never had another vision like that one. It just appeared in my mind that Lama was Tara and Rinpoche was Chenrezig.”

A couple of days before the course ended, Phra Somdet, abbot of Wat Bovoranives, who had offered lunch to the lamas in Bangkok two months earlier, visited the center. He was accompanied by Phra Khantipalo, Ayya Khema, and some Thai monks from Sydney. Lama instructed his students to line up and formally welcome them, while he bounced around with his camera taking photos and laughing freely, in total contrast to the very sober demeanor of his visitors. The abbot gave a Dharma talk to the Westerners who were still there at the center; Lama Yeshe sat in the very front row for the talk.

At the end of the month-long course, fifty people took refuge with Lama Yeshe. Also, fifty-eight received a Chenrezig empowerment and forty-five received a Tara empowerment.

A number of those who had attended the course planned to do group retreat together but Adrian Feldmann wanted to do retreat alone. “I went to see Lama in his caravan and told him. He said that was fine, adding, ‘Whenever a question comes into your mind I want you to write me a letter.’ I said, ‘Okay,’ even though I knew I was going to be in an extremely remote spot and miles from any letter-box.”

One of the lamas’ last tasks in Queensland was to write to Peter Guiliano in Melbourne, thanking him for his many services:

Dear Peter Juliyana, thank you so much for your giving pure Dharma. As much as possible practise wisdom light and giving energy to other students. Please write what everyone is doing nowaday. I want to check up your daily life. So report! Keep continuously energetic wisdom bell ringing. Chenrezig Institute is fantastic!

See you next year, psychic kiss.

Love love love love Lama Yeshe

 

On the way to the airport, Lama Yeshe stopped to buy an orange plastic mug for everyone at Kopan. “These are very good, dear; not too hot to hold,” he said. The lamas then missed their flight to Sydney. Anila Ann felt sad about the lamas’ departure. “Don’t you like it here?” asked Lama. “Oh, Lama,” said Ann, “you know all I want to do is live in your pocket.”

Back at Chenrezig, the retreaters settled into a regimen of silence and a diet of macrobiotic food. Lama Yeshe had left a taped message for them, which they played every day:

Good morning, golden flower students. Enjoy divine wisdom chanting as much possible, cultivate or activate wisdom action and stay in the universal compassion wisdom, never come down in supermarket. Worthwhile. See you soon in the everlasting peaceful sky. Stay.

 

Such simple words filled their hearts and minds with more satisfaction than years of formal education ever could.

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The Seventh Kopan Meditation Course

Lama Yeshe at Kopan, 1974From 1974: Introducing Adamantine Being (Vajrasattva) by Adele Hulse, Big Love author:

The seventh Kopan meditation was organized slightly differently than previous courses. Since the attrition rate of the sixth course had been so severe, Vens. Chötak and Pende conducted pre-course interviews with everyone who registered for the course; they provided thorough orientation into the course discipline aimed especially at newcomers so they would know ahead of time what they were signing up for. In addition, once the course got going, there were actually two parallel courses running simultaneously. While the more advanced students, those who had already attended a couple of meditation courses, were receiving teachings on the lam-rim preliminary practices, or Jorchö, from Lama Zopa Rinpoche, Dr. Nick was guiding the new students in the basic lam-rim teachings. “So I was all disgruntled, being left to handle the new students while my peers were getting advanced teachings!” Nick recalled many years later.

Halfway through the seventh meditation course Lama Yeshe arrived at Kopan to a traditional welcome of the eight auspicious symbols drawn in white chalk on the forecourt. Everyone lined up to greet him with incense, flowers, and khatas as he stepped down from Mummy Max’s Jeep. Despite the rest in Mussoorie his senior students had never seen Lama looking so unwell. He was gray, breathing heavily, and looked uncomfortably bloated—all symptoms of his heart condition. But slowly the puffiness subsided and once more he looked golden and shiny. “Lama is invincible,” his students told themselves. “He’ll be fine.”

As a follow-up to the many tests Lama Yeshe had had while in the United States, a letter arrived from the chief resident at Memorial Hospital in Wisconsin, Dr. Frank Ryning, confirming his diagnosis:

Lama Thubten Yeshe has severe rheumatic heart disease. This means that one of his heart valves is deformed due to severe scarring of the valve. This valve normally prevents blood from flowing back into the heart from the aorta, the main channel through which blood is distributed to the rest of the body. However in Lama Yeshe’s case, deformity of the valve impedes blood flow out of the heart into the aorta. The patient can have no complaints even with severe obstruction, but once symptoms begin to appear the prognosis is grim, with most patients dying within a relatively short period of time.

Dr. Ryning suggested replacing the damaged valve with an artificial one, a low-risk operation, followed by a lifetime of anticoagulant medicine to be checked every six weeks. But Lama would have none of it.

The students who knew about Lama’s health problems took over a number of secretarial and administrative jobs in order to give him more time to rest. Lama scoffed at their concern. “Since a long time Western doctors have said I’d be dead three years ago but they know nothing of psychic energy and this magical illusory body. No, you please tell everyone not to worry about me. I’ll be here for a looooong time!” Still, some noticed that when Lama laughed, he would clutch his side, so now they hesitated to tell him funny things.

In an effort to protect his health some of Lama’s senior students decided to limit access to him. This did not endear them to newer students. However, if Lama really wanted to see someone he would simply run into them in the garden or on a path. No one could stop him doing that.

“Lama is really buddha, you know,” whispered one devoted student to George Churinoff. George, a graduate in astro-physics from Massachusetts Institute of Technology and a teacher at the esteemed Choate School, was a newcomer at Kopan.

“I thought, ‘Ah, give me a break! Lama Zopa is the real one here. Who is this Lama Yeshe guy?’” George recalled. “The cult of adoration surrounding him revolted me. Once when Lama walked by me, I said, ‘It’s a nice day,’ and he replied, ‘Thank you, dear,’ and I thought, ‘What do you mean? Did you make the day?’ I was really negative.”

One day when one of the course participants was speaking with Lama Yeshe in his room, Lama Zopa came in, fell to his knees, and started to pray. For the benefit of that student Lama pointed toward himself and said, “Dorje Chang,” indicating that Rinpoche was seeing him in the aspect of Dorje Chang. (“Who is Dorje Chang?” a student once asked him. “The biggest buddha, dear,” Lama replied.) Some students reported that they had seen Rinpoche making offerings to Lama Yeshe with tears running down his face. At other times he would not raise his eyes to look at Lama at all. Lama Yeshe was often heard speaking brusquely to Rinpoche; at the same time he also told students that Rinpoche was one of the most highly evolved beings on this planet. Lama Yeshe addressed Lama Zopa as “Kusho.” This term is generally translated from the Tibetan as “your honor” or “your worship,” and is how Tibetans commonly address monks and others of higher rank in society. These translations, however, in no way capture the clear warmth and affection expressed when Lama Yeshe addressed Rinpoche in that way. Lama actually told one student that compared to Rinpoche, he himself was just a water buffalo. And late at night, when the two lamas were alone together, all that students ever heard was an indescribable cascade of their laughter pouring out across the hill, like two buddhas in total bliss.

Philippe Camus turned up with his friend Joseph. Lama Zopa asked Joseph to tell everyone his story. It seems that he had been profoundly affected by Lama Yeshe during an earlier course and had departed with the notion that having met him, he could now do anything. What Joseph wanted most of all was to become a famous hairdresser. This he had achieved, having acquired a glamorous salon in New York filled with celebrity customers. “Ah, this is good karma!” he thought. But then things started to go wrong, very wrong. Money disappeared. One day he was stabbed in the street. In a final attempt to reinstate his fortune Joseph sailed a yacht loaded with hashish into American waters, where it ran aground on a reef and was seized. Joseph’s celebrity attorney got him out of trouble but he realized that his good karma had run out. “I’ve got to get back to Yeshe! That’s where good karma comes from!” he told himself.  So here he was again, soaking it up. Lama Zopa found Joseph’s story very funny.

 

During the last ten days or so of the seventh meditation course, Lama Yeshe gave occasional teachings to the students on the theme of “Death, Bardo, and Rebirth.”

 

From Lama Yeshe’s lectures during the seventh Kopan meditation course, 1974:

After death we do not disappear. The energy of our consciousness does not disappear. Even though this physical body, these five aggregates, this physical energy, may disappear our consciousness still keeps going continuously. It doesn’t depend on whether you believe in this or not; your consciousness energy keeps going continuously. It’s natural. Energy is a natural phenomenon. So after death, your consciousness is functioning, continuously, continuously. If you are able to go beyond the ego’s wrong conceptions before you die, then you will not have to go to an uncontrolled suffering realm. On the other hand, as long as you possess an ego and its resultant wrong conceptions, you’ll automatically go to an uncontrolled situation. No one else can make you go there. Your uncontrolled circumstances are not just an idea; and no one has pushed you in that direction. It’s your own wrong-conception mind that pushes you into that uncontrolled channel.

That’s the kind of channel your mind is in now. Because you’re at the mercy of the five aggregates you get agitated. When you’re hungry or thirsty or in pain—all the information that makes you feel those things comes from these five aggregates, from this body. So the aggregates give so much information to your mind, which is in the “uncontrolled-situation” channel. Your own wrong-conception mind clung to this kind of body, and as a result you were born into an uncontrolled condition. You yourself put your mind into this kind of channel. Nobody else did it for you.

Until that uncontrolled energy is exhausted, you have to go through this cycle of death and rebirth. So after death we have an uncontrolled rebirth, maybe in a samsaric realm similar to where we are now. At present we are in a place where we can experience samsaric pleasure, aren’t we? We experience some samsaric happiness in this uncontrolled rebirth. But in another uncontrolled rebirth, we might be reborn as an animal or in what we call hell. But hell doesn’t mean a situation that goes on forever or a place that you can never come back from, which is how Westerners understand it. Hell is not a permanent state. It is also not something outside of us that we have to deal with, such as stones or a jungle. Hell is consciousness. The hell environment manifests from your consciousness, from your negative projection. Thus, the way you feel is your reality. Hell is not a place that is waiting for you, where you go down, down, down. It is also not a place where someone else puts you. When your consciousness is ready, you experience a certain impression from your environment. At that time, for you, hell is existent.

For example, from among all of us who are sitting here in this tent, there are some who feel that this tent is like hell and others who experience a good vibration, perhaps even a sense of bliss. These latter persons who are having a positive experience have clean clear vision and wholesome thoughts rather than an agitated mind. So even among those who are here, some are already in the hell realm. Yes! They’re already in a hell realm.

How can you distinguish a hell realm from the human realm? Normally we say that a hell realm is indicated by unusually extreme suffering, that is, suffering that is far beyond normal human suffering. You understand? The normal types of human suffering include the suffering of rebirth. During one’s lifetime, there is also the suffering of sickness, which is actually conflict that manifests through the body. And finally, there is the suffering of death. Rebirth, disease and death—these are the general human sufferings. We are all familiar with these. But the nature of hell is extreme suffering that is far greater than the usual human sufferings. Despite its intensity, that state is also impermanent. It does not last forever and is not static and unchangeable. When the energy for that state of consciousness is finished, then another reaction arises. If it didn’t then you would be suffering there permanently.

If you experience this tent as a hell realm, it is your schizophrenic, foggy mental projection that creates that experience. The experience does not arise from your belief. No matter whether you intellectually believe that this is a hell situation or not, for you the experience still comes, doesn’t it? It comes naturally. If you ask someone who is having this experience, “Do you believe this situation is like hell?” they’ll say, “I don’t know. I just know I have this kind of visualization.” They are going to tell you what they feel it’s like rather than what they believe it is. You can see that this kind of suffering doesn’t depend on our believing in it.

 

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