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The Tara Statue

Rinpoche painting Tara, 1976From 1976: Heaven is Now! by Adele Hulse, Big Love author:

Another American, Connie Miller, had arrived on Christmas Day 1975 to stay at Kopan. A couple of weeks earlier in December, she had come up to Kopan to visit her friend Karuna Cayton, a fellow student from The Evergreen State College in Washington State (USA) doing independent research in Nepal for his final university theses. Karuna was participating in the group lam-rim retreat one hundred students were doing with Thubten Pende following the November meditation course.

On the afternoon of that first visit, Thubten Pemo got talking with Connie. Pemo said she felt strongly “from the sound of her voice” that she should join the retreat. Connie wasn’t easily convinced, since she had not done the previous month-long meditation course, but Pemo persisted. She was also enticed by Pemo telling her that Lama Yeshe was going to be giving a Green Tara initiation sometime soon. The topic of the thesis Connie was working on was related to female deities in Tibetan Buddhism, and to Tara in particular.

Connie returned to Kathmandu with the intention of packing her things and coming up to Kopan to stay. She finally walked up the hill carrying her backpack, arriving during the Christmas puja taking place in the large tent on the side of Kopan hill. After getting settled, Connie joined the guided lam-rim retreat and attended the mind training teachings on the Eight Verses of Thought Transformation from Lama Zopa Rinpoche that were also taking place.

“One day in January Rinpoche was looking down from the balcony outside his room as Connie sat in the sun behind the gompa. She had fallen ill with bronchitis and stopped attending the retreat sessions. After they talked for a while, Rinpoche invited her to help him paint the large Tara statue Lama Yeshe had sent Max to find in Kathmandu,” recalled Pemo. “This surprised me a lot. Rinpoche paid a lot of attention to Connie and they spent a lot of time together painting. Now when people ask Connie how she met the lamas she always says it was because of me. Then we look at each other and laugh.”

Rinpoche explained exactly how the statue should be painted and told a visiting elderly relative from Solu Khumbu to help Connie. Lama Pasang had begun constructing a glass-fronted house on a pedestal where the statue would eventually reside. Lama Yeshe wanted Tara to overlook a triangular pond surrounded by flowers that was to be built under the ancient bodhi tree that stood in front of the gompa.

For some time, the unfinished Tara statue sat on the balcony outside the lamas’ rooms and Connie came every afternoon to paint for a few hours. Sometimes Lama Yeshe came out after his afternoon “rest” and talked with her, occasionally sharing his special tea. “That tea was incredible! Part salty and part sweet, almost like a hot tea-flavored milkshake,” she said. “It was unlike anything I had ever tasted, before or since.”

“After a while, the statue was moved into the Kopan library, a big room, also called Mummy Max’s room, located above the office, and I continued painting it there. Jampa Chökyi was also working on an embroidered appliqué thangka in the same room,” Connie continued. “Whenever she showed it to Lama he’d shout at her, telling her it was all wrong and she must undo it. The way Lama pushed her was incredible. He cut through all her excuses like a knife. Jampa Chökyi was a proud young Spanish woman from a wealthy family and I had a lot of respect for her and the way she accepted all the criticism.” Jampa Chökyi made at least two appliquéd thangkas, including one of thousand-armed Chenrezig made of pieces of silk and installed at Lawudo, and a second one of Tara Chittamani, also made of silk, that was eventually hung at Vajrapani Institute in California.

Eventually, on 16 March, just as Thubten Pemo had said, Lama Yeshe conferred a Green Tara initiation to a group of Western students and Connie was able to attend.

One afternoon, when the painting was nearly done, Lama showed Connie several packets of gems that were destined to adorn the statue of Tara. “Lama often talked to me about Tara. ‘Tara has so many beautiful, natural jewels,’ he once told me. Naturally I was thinking in the most concrete terms, of gemstones, but the way Lama looked at me it suddenly dawned on me that he was speaking of a very different type of jewel, of Tara’s qualities that transcend anything physical. I felt quite embarrassed by how dense I was!” Connie recalled.

 

From Lama Yeshe’s teachings on Tara in March 1976:

What is Divine Wisdom Mother Tara? Who is she? All this wintertime we have been working to fix our Mummy Tara statue. So I think that at least you have a good visualization, a good basic understanding of what she looks like. I hope so.

The actual Divine Wisdom Mother Tara is the embodiment of all the manifested activities of all universal supreme beings. Their actions are transformed into Tara’s green radiating light body. Therefore, meditation on Tara can result in very incredible and powerful activities. Also, her meditation yields results very quickly. This is because Tara is in female aspect and we consider feminine energy to have the characteristic of being quicker, acting more quickly than masculine energy. The favorite deity of all the great Mahayana saints is Tara.

This profound yoga method of Divine Wisdom Mother Tara brings us to the everlasting peaceful realizations of enlightenment, benefiting not only ourselves but also all mother sentient beings. But also many people—materialistic people and even some lamas—also do this puja all the time not for enlightenment realizations, you understand, but just to have a comfortable and successful life. For example, the farmers who are growing wheat and barley may be worried that there won’t be sufficient rain this year for their crops, so they do this puja to ensure that the rains will come. This is the same as the Nepalese people who make offerings to Kali [the Hindu mother goddess] because they think that if they do not, they won’t have good crops that year, no rice, no dhal, and so on. It is some kind of simple mind, you know. But even that is not right! Using such an incredibly powerful method in such a simple way is like using a cloth made of gold to clean your toilet. If I were to do that, you would say to me, “What a stupid lama you are! Why are you using this incredibly valuable golden cloth to clean your bathroom?”

The position in which Tara is sitting has great significance. Her right leg is extended outward and down whereas her left leg is drawn in, sitting this way, yes? This means that Tara has complete control. She is able to completely control all her monthly periods, all emotional up-and-down mood swings, up-and-down female energy. She has realized complete control over all these aspects. How wonderful! This is why if you understand the real essence of Tara it is very encouraging to women, you understand? Women are better able to take care of the body, to make the body beautiful; they have better understanding of these things. It is possible, yes? More importantly, women are encouraged by using such a yoga method that they are equally able to discover enlightenment, just as men can do. There is no distinction! In this Mahayana yoga tantra tradition, there is no division between what men can accomplish and what women can accomplish. There is nothing that says that men can discover enlightenment realizations in this life using this powerful yoga method but women cannot. This is wrong! We are all equally capable; we all have the same possibilities.

Historically, when Mother Tara first took the bodhisattva vows she vowed in front of the Buddha at that time, “There are many buddhas in male aspect in the world but very few in female aspect. So I will remain always in female aspect and become enlightened in female aspect in order to help all Dharma practitioners be successful.” She promised! Therefore, any serious Dharma practitioner who engages in the deity practice of Tara will be very successful. This yoga method can also be used to bring success for Dharma purposes, to overcome problems, even to obtain material things, equipment that we need for our Dharma practice. In such cases, you can use this practice for those purposes. Clearly, it all depends on your motivation.

When the painting project was completed, Lama told Connie to join him in the gompa one afternoon toward the end of April so he could show her exactly where the various jewels should be placed on Tara’s crown, necklace, bracelets and so on. The day of the meeting, however, Connie found herself doubled over with intense abdominal pains. Incapacitated and in extreme distress, she was rushed down to Shanti Bhawan hospital in Kathmandu where it was determined that she was suffering an attack of appendicitis. That same evening, she was operated on, and according to her friends nearly died when she was carried to her room after the appendectomy and went into convulsions. “What I remember is a long series of dreams and hallucinations in which appeared various people from Kopan, monks and nuns and especially Lama Yeshe. I felt in my heart that Lama Yeshe was there with me. He had sent a message to me that I should visualize strong golden light entering into my belly, healing everything that was wrong,” Connie remembered. “Somehow this image pervaded all the hallucinations that I had all night long. I have no doubt that Lama saved my life.” Lama Yeshe had showered her with gifts, including a picture of himself inscribed on the back in his erratic hand, “Much love, Lama Yeshe. See you space.”

Meanwhile, Lama supervised the construction of the triangular reflecting pond. A week later, the Tara statue was scheduled to be consecrated in a series of special pujas attended by many dignitaries and Lama Yeshe’s personal friends, who brought mountains of offerings. Connie’s responsibility had been to paint the crown, the robes and the lotus seat on which Tara sits, but the fine detailed painting of Tara’s facial features, especially her eyes, was done by Lama Zopa Rinpoche. Rinpoche was truly able to bring Tara alive when he “opened the eyes” of the statue. This was the last step before the actual consecration, during which Tara was invited to come and reside in the statue.

“A week after the surgery, I checked myself out of the hospital and took a taxi back up to Kopan,” Connie reminisced. “I was able to attend the main puja, which went on for hours. During a break around midnight everyone was asked to leave the meditation hall. As I was leaving with the others Lama Yeshe told me to go wash my hands and feet and to come back quickly to the gompa. Lama, Lama Zopa Rinpoche, Lama Pasang, Lama Lhundrup, Tenzin Norbu Rinpoche, Gelek Gyatso Rinpoche, Yangsi Rinpoche and I were the only people in the gompa. The doors were then closed and I sat and looked on while they filled the statue with various holy things and prayers and mantras written on tightly rolled up lengths of paper. I was still full of stitches and had the strangest sensation of my own insides being stuffed. It was the most amazing experience! When they’d finished, everyone else returned and the puja continued all night long.

“The next morning, two monks carrying Tara on their shoulders led everyone in a joyous procession all around Kopan hill. Lama was wearing a ceremonial crown of the five tathagata buddhas and we stopped at various points to chant and make prayers. Lama explained to everyone that we were showing Tara around her new home. Then she was placed in her house in front of the gompa. I always thought of her as watching over and protecting Kopan from there.”

 

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Mount Everest Center

Lama with the MEC students, 1976From 1976: “Heaven is Now!” by Adele Hulse, Big Love author:

The Kopan community fell neatly into two separate worlds: the Injis and the Mount Everest Centre monks. As far as the Injis were concerned Kopan was paradise—the best thing that had ever happened to them. In contrast, some of the young monks wanted to run away. Michael Losang Yeshe was no longer the exotic little Inji monk he had once been but was now one of the crowd, speaking Tibetan like a native and looking every bit as grubby as his Sherpa classmates. He constantly used the expression “we Tibetans.”

“Once four of us ran away together,” Michael recalled. “Our punishment was to carry six tins of water each from the bottom of the hill, then pour it into the Tara pond. This meant a fifteen-minute walk each way. After just one trip we decided the only way to avoid this horrible task was to run away again. My father had married a Nepali woman, so we ran to his house in Kathmandu. But one of the monks ran back to Kopan and told Lama what we were doing. Only my stepmother was home when we got there and to our dismay she immediately drove Gelek Gyatso Rinpoche and me back to Kopan and marched us into Lama’s room. We sat down nervously. ‘You escaped! Shame on you!’ said Lama. ‘You too Losang Yeshe, have shame!’ But he gave us an easier punishment than the first one. The fourth monk had also run to his family’s home in Kathmandu, but when he returned Lama told him he had to leave Kopan. ‘The reason you escaped is because you don’t like it here, you don’t get what you need here and something is wrong for you, isn’t it? So why did you come back? You don’t want to stay, so you can go,’ Lama told him. It’s funny how Lama sent him away and not us. I ran away a couple more times and nobody ran away more than Gelek Gyatso, yet Lama accepted him back every time.”

Even Yangsi Rinpoche occasionally got into trouble. “Sometimes we had our art class in the gompa,” he recalled, “and occasionally Lama would walk through and inspect our work. One day I shouted something carelessly to another boy. Lama came straight over and scolded me, saying, ‘Aren’t you ashamed of shouting like that in class? You are a rinpoche and have to behave better than that.’ I was pretty young but I never forgot that incident. Lama was always so kind and loving to me. This was the first time he had ever scolded me. It brought down my ego.”

One little monk, Thubten Sherab, got thrown out of Kopan for being naughty. Everyone liked Thubten Sherab, who spoke Italian and Spanish and even taught English. Lama Yeshe noted Jimi Neal’s distress over the expulsion. “You shocked my method, dear?” Lama asked him. “I was and said so, but I immediately guessed what he was up to,” said Jimi. “Thubten Sherab was supposed to find some adult to come back to Kopan with him and beg for him to be allowed back. That’s exactly what happened and from then on things were fine for him.”

Most of the boys were from the Himalayan mountains and as wild as little lions. They needed Lama’s tough love. Lama Yeshe often whacked the boys with his long wooden mala. This horrified some of the Injis but he dismissed their concerns. “Look at these boys, how lucky they are! Here they spend their days doing puja and practicing Dharma. If they were in America what do you think they’d be doing?”

Lama regularly exacted discipline in the boys’ dining room. “His big thing was that we should not talk while eating,” said one boy. “If he heard noise from the dining room he’d come in, take off one of his wooden Dr. Scholl’s sandals and go down the line banging everybody on the head with it. Nobody cried because we weren’t really afraid of Lama Yeshe. Lama Pasang was much tougher on us. As for Lama Lhundrup, no one was ever afraid of him. Once we were playing around during a meal when suddenly Lama

Yeshe was there behind us. “You are shouting during dinner! You haven’t got any manners!” He went to the vegetable store, took out a big long white radish and went boom, boom, on everyone’s head. The radish broke at the fifth boy, so he got another one.”

Lama Yeshe kept a close watch on their food, making sure it was clean, not greasy and included a daily salad. At night they usually ate thukpa and chapattis. Lama didn’t want them eating Western bread and jam, which was of very low quality in Nepal. When he left to go on tour, however, standards in the kitchen tended to decline. Lama also instructed the boys in cleanliness and personal hygiene.

Sometimes the boys cleaned up the Inji dining room during courses and washed dishes, but generally the Mount Everest Centre boys had little contact with the foreign community other than at pujas. Falling asleep during puja was a common occurrence.

“We were allowed to fall asleep twice, but if it happened a third time it meant a black mark on your discipline record,” recalled Michael Losang Yeshe. “I learned how to fall asleep sitting upright with only my head drooping and one eye half open. Once I woke from a sound sleep to feel the unmistakable presence of Lama Yeshe behind me and something cold and heavy on my head. I realized it was one of the big water bowls off the altar. He poured the water all over me and held the bowl on my head while all the Injis behind me giggled.”

But life for the boys wasn’t all discipline and hardship. There were wonderful times with Lama, especially when they got out the traditional dancing masks. At Losar the boys had a marvelous time prancing around in them, clashing cymbals and blowing the long horns while Lama Yeshe threw handfuls of candies to them from the gompa roof.

Once again Michael’s father, Yorgo Cassapidis, invited all the Kopan monks to make puja at his house and in return gave each boy an offering of 100 rupees. Riches beyond their wildest dreams! Back at Kopan Lama Yeshe produced a list of every boy who had been at that puja and greeted them with an outstretched hand. Funds at Kopan were desperately short and again, such largesse was not to be wasted.

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.

 

The Lake Arrowhead Course

Lama Yeshe, Lake Arrowhead, 1975From 1975: We Need a Foundation by Adele Hulse, Big Love author:

When they finally arrived in Los Angeles on June 23, Lama and Max were met by Thubten Wongmo and a photographer friend, Carol Royce-Wilder. Carol had arranged for them to stay in her relatives’ big ranch-style house in Tarzana, where they could relax between public lectures. “Lama fit right in,” said Carol. “He called my relatives his ‘American family’ and ended up changing their lives.” Lama loved the big clean house, especially the beautiful bathrooms.

Thubten Wongmo, previously Feather Meston, had arrived five months earlier to stay with her grandmother in Beverly Hills where she had grown up. Her father had created and written the TV series Gunsmoke, so the Los Angeles Times did a story on the Hollywood kid turned Buddhist nun. Wongmo brought her beloved grandmother, Bernardine Szold Fritz, to meet Lama Yeshe. “He jumped up from his seat, took her arm and walked her around the house. Her face was ecstatic,” said Wongmo. “I had never seen anyone being so loving and gentle with her.”

John Schwartz, a Los Angeles filmmaker, scriptwriter and producer, had seen the newspaper story on Wongmo and gotten in touch. When Lama wanted to visit a shopping mall, Wongmo and John Schwartz obliged. “He was buying all this stuff for the boys at Kopan,” said John. “But it was almost closing time and the staff was asking people to leave. He went out the big glass doors and held them open for the next person, and the next and the next, smiling at them all and saying, ‘Thank you!’ They looked at him and laughed. Wongmo had shown me a photo of Lama Yeshe before I met him, and I got rushes of energy from it. I didn’t know what was happening to me.”

Lama rested and relaxed for several days. On June 28, he gave a public lecture following a film showing at the University Religious Conference in Los Angeles to an audience of 250. The next day, the same program was repeated at Plummer Park, Fiesta Hall, to a similarly sized audience. Thubten Wongmo had organized these public lectures in order to encourage more people to attend the upcoming meditation course, as registration seemed to be below what the organizers had expected.

On Sunday, June 29, John and Wongmo went out to the airport to collect Lama Zopa Rinpoche and Nick. “I couldn’t believe the suitcases; they were the heaviest I had ever lifted,” said John. They were filled with Tibetan texts, all texts.

The lamas were to teach at Camp Arrowpines on Lake Arrowhead, east of Los Angeles. John Schwartz arranged for them to stay in a house belonging to his friend Michael Wayne, son of the famous actor John Wayne. Chuck Thomas, who had been to Kopan and who had helped care for the lamas in Wisconsin during the previous year, was appointed to be the lamas’ attendant; Teresa Knowlton, who had attended the fourth and sixth Kopan courses, was their driver.

A three-week course had been organized, with an official “early finish” after the first two weeks for those who could not attend the entire course. One hundred people attended the first two weeks; sixty remained for the third week. During the first two weeks of this retreat-style course, Rinpoche covered the basic lam-rim teachings, but during the last week, coming for only one session a day, he focused his teaching exclusively on the complex topic of emptiness. Lama Yeshe taught much more than usual during this course, and even gave private interviews to practically every student in attendance. It was also here that Lama introduced the tantric “seed-syllable meditation” for the first time to his students. In fact, either Nick or Wongmo led everyone in the seed-syllable meditation every morning from the very start of the course. As well, everyone took the eight Mahayana precepts each morning before dawn for the last two weeks of the course. Lama Yeshe actually gave refuge twice—at the early finish, two weeks into the course, to thirteen people, and at the course end on July 19 to thirty-eight students. On that day he also gave lay precepts to twenty. On July 20 sixty students received a Chenrezig initiation from Lama Yeshe.

In the Tibetan pantheon each deity (or personification of particular aspects of the enlightened mind) has an associated mantra—Sanskrit words packed with meaning. In reply to a question about mantra Lama Yeshe responded that while the common misconception was that reciting mantras is an external and unnatural exercise (rather than an internal and spontaneous occurrence), mantra transcends external sounds and words. “It is more like listening to a subtle inner sound that has always inhabited your nervous system,” he said.

 

Lama Yeshe on mantra:

The existence of inner sound cannot be denied. Our nervous system has its own specific inner sound. This is not something that Mahayanists have invented; it is an objective reality that exists within us. For example, the sound ah exists within us from the moment of birth. All speech sounds are derived from ah. Without ah there could be no other sound.

Mantra becomes more powerful when imparted by a qualified teacher who has deep inner experience of the mantra. A good teacher creates a situation that heightens our receptivity to the wisdom transmitted by the mantra.

Mantra is energy. It is always pure, and cannot be contaminated by negative thought processes. As mantra is not gross energy, it cannot be corrupted the way sensory phenomena are corrupted by our own minds. Those endowed with skilful wisdom will naturally attain realizations through the power of mantra. Practitioners of mantra yoga will discover that their inner sound becomes completely one with the mantra itself. Then even their normal speech become mantra. 

 

Seed syllables are a further reduction of such mantras into one intensely meaningful syllable. For example, Tara’s mantra is om taré tuttaré turé soha and her seed syllable is tam. Such seed syllables are usually visualized in written form (in either Western or Tibetan script) at the place of the chakras, or subtle energy centers, in the body. Seed syllables are all topped with three subtle cyphers: a crescent, a dot and a tiny flame. One practices visualizing the letters absorbing from the bottom to the top, through the two lower cyphers and into the tiny flame, which then dissolves into emptiness.

The seed-syllable meditation that Lama Yeshe taught to his students isa simple variation of the tummo (inner heat) meditation and an illustration of the mechanics of tantric practice, a huge field of study. Teaching such a practice to new students was a radical thing to do. It was a measure of Lama Yeshe’s extraordinary confidence in his students that he did so.

The basic visualization instructions for what Lama Yeshe called the “seed-syllable meditation” are almost identical to those of the vase breathing meditation described in the previous chapter, the only exception being that just above the mystic point below the navel where the three psychic channels join together, one visualizes inside that juncture a tiny red seed-syllable like a red-hot glowing ember. The idea is to generate heat from this “ember”—the inner psychic heat called tummo. As one practices vase breathing, the concentration of breath around the small flame in the shushumna, or central channel, brings energy to that point, causing the ember to glow hotter and hotter. This heat is then used to melt the psychic energy contained in the various chakras in the body, thereby generating great bliss throughout the body and mind. One uses this great bliss to cultivate deep concentration and as a powerful tool to further one’s understanding of non-duality, or emptiness.

Practicing the seed-syllable meditation brings one into contact with the inner psychic nervous system, the basis of tantric practice. It was most unusual for such a practice to be taught openly, especially to new Western students. But Lama Yeshe did just that.

“Lama hadn’t even taught the seed-syllable meditation to the Sangha yet, but he knew the American attitude was, ‘Show me! Prove it!’” said John Schwartz. “Lama Zopa had us all dissolving our bodies on our pillows, melting down all the atoms until there was nothing left. He told us how to ‘see’ the atoms in the wall and to put our finger through it. He described all this in such incredible detail that everyone was just blown away.”

Lama Yeshe usually kept out of sight during courses taught by Rinpoche, but in this instance the American students were becoming so emotional that he came every second night just to calm them down.

Carol Fields had come down from Berkeley, but she wasn’t having much fun. “I couldn’t eat and got only about four hours’ sleep a night. I had to leave the course early and so Lama gave refuge to me and another student together. I was filled with tenderness for everybody for about six months,” said Carol.

Carol Royce-Wilder took dozens of wonderful photos of the lamas teaching. One day, seemingly inconsolable and feeling desperately depressed, she burst in on Lama, sobbing hysterically. His eyes widened and he looked very concerned. “I just blubbered out of control, a real spectacle,” Carol recalled. “‘What is it, dear?’ he asked, taking my hands in his and drawing me close to him. Looking around he found flowers someone had given him and said, ‘Here, dear, these are for you.’

“I said, ‘No, no, Lama, it’s me who should be offering them to you!’ He handed me some fruit and said to take it, too. ‘No, Lama, you don’t understand; nothing helps. Not fruit, not flowers, it’s useless! I’m totally isolated and alone. I can’t feel anything. I’m dead. Nothing means anything to me, not even you, Lama!’ I shrieked and sobbed. He said, ‘Not even me? Impossible, impossible!’ Then he opened his eyes very wide and drew my eyes to his and what felt like my whole being went…somewhere. I don’t have the words to describe what happened. I felt like he took me into the deepest recesses of his being and I saw, I knew, that there was nothing there. Absolutely nothing at all. There was just an empty silence, a black hole. There was simply no person called ‘Lama’ inside. It was awesome. In that moment I realized that the friendly smiling personable Lama Yeshe I knew was a figment, a persona he’d created solely for our benefit, that behind the charismatic exterior lay unbounded empty space. Lama had allowed me to catch a glimpse of that for one brief but eternal moment. When I emerged from this indescribable experience he said, ‘Well, dear, we’ll talk again. Now you go back to the course.’ Later, I took the lamas to see the movie Earthquake. I was terrified. ‘It’s only a movie, dear,’ said Lama.”

Radmila Moacanin was struck by how similar the teachings were to those of Carl Jung. “When I told Lama I couldn’t recall past lives, he said that if one goes further and further back one slowly remembers them,” Radmila recounted. “One night he demonstrated attachment to one person by squeezing me so hard I couldn’t help but make the face of someone whose freedom has been removed. ‘You see?’ he said.”

Lama Yeshe had private interviews with almost everyone who attended the course. Later, he remarked that every female who came to see him had promptly burst into tears. One evening he sat with five women—Thubten Wongmo, Pam Cowan, Lois Greenwood, Merideth Hasson, Lynda Millspaugh—and two men—Nick Ribush and Dick Robinson—and discussed the possibility of holding a special course for women. They deliberated at length about what to call it. Clearly it had to be differentiated from the politically motivated women’s movement. Every time the words “women’s liberation” were mentioned in America, a dozen conflicting voices rose in clamor. “Women’s Meditation Course for Inner Development” was their best shot. The males present said that there should also be a special course for men. Lama Yeshe agreed, but for him teaching women how to use their energy appeared to be a priority. Some of Lama Yeshe’s comments during that conversation:

 

Women have a particular mind. Women have particular conceptions regarding the meaning of “man” and “woman” in the world and from these come specific notions about how to deal with men. These ideas, “woman means this,” “man means that,” are the source of so many problems between the sexes. These ideas obscure a true knowledge of the reality of female energy, the reality of male energy, and how they truly function. This knowledge brings a remarkable emotional release. This freedom from such emotionally fixed ideas makes it possible for a woman to relate better to herself, her own energy, free of misconceptions and misinterpretations. Since the beginning of this earth until now both women’s and men’s usual interpretations of “woman” has been absolutely wrong, on both sides. Therefore relationships between men and women have been wrong all along because such relationships are not actually found in the interpretations.

In reality, men can do and women can do. But men generally think that they run the world and so they create a hallucinated painting of reality like this. And women believe it too. Because men think they run the world, they also think that women are nothing. And women believe them. Many women think that men will lead and they can just, you know, help! That’s all. But that’s not true. Not at all. Without women in the world, men would go crazy, absolutely crazy. Women need to understand this. Without the support of women, ordinary men would be almost nonexistent, unable to have a life. Of course, here I’m speaking relatively.

This is why…I think female energy is very interesting. Understanding female energy can give women more strength and help them to become independent and free. You understand what I mean? It can actually completely release that feeling of insecurity that can come when a woman feels that she can’t have a life unless she has a man to lead her life for her. Many women carry, I think, misconceptions about themselves that contribute to a sense of weakness. This definitely doesn’t serve their liberation. These misconceptions are only words, you know. But because they believe they are in a weak position, then they don’t believe in the reality of their positive strength. So I think that to organize this course would be very worthwhile.

 

In the end, this special course for women never happened.

There were many discussions during the Lake Arrowhead course about establishing a center in California. After dinner one night Lama Yeshe sketched out a plan on a paper napkin and spoke to the students about his vision of what the land might look like: about 250 acres with a hill in the middle. The gompa was situated at the top of the hill with the Sangha living close by. At the base of the hill lived the lay community, with a school, gardens, craft shops—everything necessary for community life. He even gave the center its name: Vajrapani Institute for Wisdom Culture.

This center was first located in the Venice, California, home of Dick Robinson, Vajrapani’s first director, and his wife Merideth Hasson. The couple, together with Sharon and Louie Gross, all four Kopan students, later moved to Santa Barbara in southern California, where they shared a house designated as the new Vajrapani Institute location. They invited Dharma teachers and organized courses and evening meditation sessions, all for the purpose of furthering the development of Vajrapani Institute. Chuck Thomas was there to help, and John and Elaine Jackson, who would become important Vajrapani members in the future, first encountered the Dharma during those months in Santa Barbara. The Santa Barbara Vajrapani house only lasted about six months, however, after which Dick and Merideth returned to Venice and Sharon and Louie returned to Berkeley, where they all continued to organize Dharma activities under the name of Vajrapani.

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.

Yangsi Rinpoche Recognized and Enthroned

Yangsi Rinpoche, 1975From 1975, We Need a Foundation by Adele Hulse, Big Love author:

When Lama Yeshe and his old friend Jampa Trinley had been students together at Sera in Tibet, one of their dearest teachers had been Geshe Ngawang Gendun. He had died in Tibet before Jampa Trinley had departed Lhasa for Nepal. Before his death Geshe Gendun was recorded as having said, “There is no more reason for me to live. It is negative and immoral in Tibet now, so it’s time for me to go.” He lay down on his right side, his right hand supporting his head in the manner of the reclining Buddha, and simply left his body. Geshe Gendun also told Jampa Trinley how much he liked his student’s home and wanted to return to it. One night in Kathmandu Jampa Trinley’s wife dreamt she was holding a baby who was a lama. Shortly afterward she discovered she was pregnant. Lama Yeshe’s old friend Jampa Trinley often visited Kopan and stayed overnight—to enjoy a good laugh together and devise business plans—and on one such occasion he told Lama Yeshe about his wife’s dream and about her pregnancy. Lama Yeshe flew into action immediately, obviously with some inkling that this baby was the reincarnation of Geshe Ngawang Gendun.

Months later, after the child had been born, Marcel recalled, “Lama came back from Kathmandu one day and told me he had discovered the incarnation of his teacher. I asked him how he knew. He said that he had made a mandala offering to the young boy and immediately a strong clear vision of his former teacher had arisen in his mind.” That this child was indeed the reincarnation of Geshe Ngawang Gendun was later confirmed by Kyabjé Trijang Rinpoche, who formally recognized the tulku. The child was named Kelsang Puntsog Rinpoche. Lama Yeshe was over the moon when he first brought the little boy to Kopan. “He is still my teacher, he is my teacher without words. He is my teacher forever! His face is exactly the same as it was last time. It’s incredible! He uses a very high communication, not at all like a baby. His mind is fantastic!” Lama Yeshe enthused.

In January 1975 Kelsang Puntsog Rinpoche was to be enthroned at Kopan, after which occasion he became known to all as Yangsi Rinpoche. By then he had already been living at Kopan for some time, sleeping in what was known as Lama Yeshe’s big room—a long upstairs room with beautiful Tibetan carpets located at the front of the gompa building and kept for formal receptions. Lama Yeshe spent most of his time in a tiny bedroom opposite Lama Zopa Rinpoche’s equally small one. In time, Yangsi Rinpoche came to share Lama Lhundrup’s little room with him.

Prior to the big day Lama Yeshe had everybody at Kopan cleaning the place and painting buildings with whitewash. He borrowed many Tibetan carpets, furniture, brocades and excellent thangkas so that Kopan looked prosperous and beautiful. Everybody at Sera had known Geshe Gendun, and Jampa Trinley’s family was well respected in Kathmandu.

Five hundred people, including one hundred Westerners, attended the elaborate enthronement ceremonies. As long horns on the Kopan gompa roof sounded out across the valley, in the first morning light one could make out the misty shapes of guests coming up the hill. Lama Zopa Rinpoche was required to wear gorgeous ceremonial brocades befitting his rank as a tulku, an honor he did not appear to enjoy one bit. Yangsi Rinpoche arrived, wearing a tall yellow pandit’s hat and dressed in fine robes. He sat on the highest throne in the gompa and behaved impeccably. Afterward, everyone lined up to offer khatas to him and receive his blessing.

It was Kopan’s first big celebratory puja. As an offering the little monks each received ten rupees plus a whole loaf of bread to themselves. In honor of the day Jampa Trinley donated several large and very beautiful statues to the Kopan gompa.

The group lam-rim retreat that had begun in December after the end of the seventh meditation course was still in progress. Lama Yeshe was very keen that his Tibetan visitors see Westerners doing meditation. At his request the retreaters did not interrupt their schedule and the group did all their usual meditation sessions right through the entire enthronement ceremony. Many curious Tibetans peeked into their tent to look at the very unusual spectacle of more than forty Westerners meditating under Marcel’s guidance.

From that day onward, Yangsi Rinpoche sat in pujas alongside the other three little rinpoches. He had a terrible habit of falling asleep. “Sometimes I’d wake up to find grains of offering rice stuck to my forehead from the table in front of me,” he said. When the boys fell asleep during puja, Lama sometimes took one of the large brass water bowls off the altar and placed it square on top of the offender’s head. That usually woke them up. However, he did not treat the little rinpoches in this manner. Their rank gave them certain privileges. As a result, some classmates revered them, whereas others were jealous of the leniency accorded them by Lama Yeshe. The respect with which Lama Yeshe treated Yangsi Rinpoche was a model to all of how one should treat a tulku. “Perhaps he’s trying to show us how to treat himself when he comes back,” mused the Injis. But no one wanted to talk about Lama Yeshe reincarnating—no one could consider the prospect of him dying.

The Sixth Kopan Meditation Course

Rinpoche teaching, Kopan, 1974From 1974: Introducing Adamantine Being (Vajrasattva) by Adele Hulse, Big Love author:

It was springtime in Nepal; the days were starting to get warmer, the weather was generally sunny and breezy, dry and dusty, while the nights were still quite chilly. The sixth meditation course began on 22 March 1974. Preparations had been going on for several weeks. The big tent behind the gompa came from army headquarters in Kathmandu and was installed at the very last minute. The army even sent Gurkhas to Kopan to help set it up.

The meditation course was well known along the hippie trail, a cool thing to do if you were spiritual—and it was definitely cool to be spiritual in the Himalayas. Nepal was a magical place to be and the wonderful views over the Kathmandu Valley could not fail to lift hearts and minds.

Harvey Horrocks, Peter Kedge’s friend from the aeronautical division of Rolls-Royce, had returned to Nepal to do the course. Yeshe Khadro managed the office. Thanks to Mummy Max asking Roger, a tall skinny Australian lad, what he did for a living, there was now some electricity at Kopan—parts of it, at least. This young electrician was thereafter known as Electric Roger.

Anila Ann led the meditation sessions and Chötak did all the shopping for the community. Lama Yeshe knew he would never waste a penny. “Lama used to call me ‘the backward Indian boy,’” said Chötak. “He knew I couldn’t possibly fit in with the sort of regime the new Sangha were into.” Losang Nyima had been sent to work at Tushita in Dharamsala as the housekeeper.

Once the course got started, Lama Zopa Rinpoche relentlessly unraveled the sufferings of existence, particularly those of the lower realms of existence—the hot and cold hells, and the realm of the pretas. Rinpoche also spoke at length on the shortcomings of seeking pleasure for oneself and the immense value of caring for others. But the spiritually cool wanted auras, astral travel, and tantric sex.

Two hundred and fifty people enrolled for the course; within two weeks over seventy had left. Lama Yeshe didn’t mind at all—he even made a comment about “junk” people. “Junk” was one of his newest words.

Many people were finding meditation to be very difficult and the group was becoming increasingly agitated. “One morning Lama called me to breakfast,” said Peter Kedge. “He made oatmeal and served it to me. I don’t know what it was but it was the most delicious oatmeal I have ever eaten in my life. After I’d finished, Lama said that I had to give a talk and tell everyone that nobody invited them to come, but as long as they are here they have to follow the discipline, follow the program, and keep the five precepts. Anyone was welcome to leave if they didn’t like it.”

By the third week of the course the tension was palpable. One day, a man stood at the back of the tent holding up his watch and calling out that it was time that Lama Zopa stopped talking. Time was never anything to Rinpoche. Some accused him of brainwashing. Just before the afternoon tea break a sudden storm erupted but ended just as quickly, leaving in its wake spectacular double rainbows in the valley below. Immediately the group tension just melted away. An hour later a bird flew into the tent and perched on someone’s shoulder.

During one meditation session several students found themselves rocking back and forth involuntarily. Someone had already asked Lama Zopa about this unusual sensation that some people experienced during meditation. Rinpoche put it down to a simple lack of control. However, this time the flowering plant on the throne was also rocking. Actually, the earth itself was shuddering. “Meditate on bodhicitta; it is very important!” Rinpoche instructed. If this was going to be the last moment in their lives, the one truly valuable act they could do was to generate the compassionate wish to be of maximum benefit to others. Then everything went dead quiet. Moments later the valley below filled with the frightened barking of hundreds of dogs and the anxious cries of villagers. Three separate earth tremors followed but no real damage was done.

* * *
From Lama Zopa Rinpoche’s sixth meditation course teachings:

Bodhicitta is a pure thought. Its essence is caring more for others than yourself. This is the opposite of the thought that always puts yourself first, the mind that thinks, “I am the most important of all.” The person with bodhicitta thinks that others are more important. This is the complete opposite of self-cherishing—you always want to sacrifice yourself in order to benefit others, to give pleasure to others, to free others from suffering, to enlighten other sentient beings.

And anybody can practice bodhicitta. It doesn’t depend on your color, caste, race, class or the way you dress. It doesn’t even depend upon your religion—even Christians, Hindus, Muslims, Jews, anybody can practice bodhicitta.

No matter what you are called, you need to develop this pure thought because with it you never give harm to either yourself or other beings; not the tiniest atom of trouble. And besides not giving even an atom of harm, bodhicitta always keeps you and others in peace. With this pure thought in mind there’s no way you can hurt others in any way. Furthermore, anything you do for the benefit of others, such as making charity, teaching Dharma and so forth, is all the more pure and sincere; these actions are pure since they’re done with the motivation of wanting to release others from problems. The more an action is pure and sincere, the more beneficial it becomes.

Bodhicitta is especially important if you’re serious about desiring world peace. People who achieve bodhicitta can never give trouble to others out of jealousy, pride, avarice or aggression because these minds come from the self-cherishing thought and bodhicitta completely eliminates it. If everybody had bodhicitta, world peace would become a real possibility. Peace doesn’t depend so much on action—giving lectures, holding conferences, building things and so forth—because if what is done is tainted by the self-cherishing thought, even though its intention is to bring world peace, it is not pure and it won’t bring peace. If an action is motivated by self-cherishing, delusion, greed or hatred it cannot be pure. Therefore it cannot benefit others that much, it doesn’t have much power to benefit. Also, it can cause complications and suffering.

Anyway, actions done out of the negative mind are not the cause of peace, not the cause of happiness. They cause only suffering for self and others because they are rooted in negativity. Peace and happiness result from positive actions; positive actions arise from a pure mind.

So, if you really want to experience peace and bring peace to everybody on earth, you should not put so much energy into developing external objects but redirect it into developed and changing the mind—your own and others’. The negative mind is the cause of turmoil and suffering. Work at eradicating this poisonous root of suffering, which reaches deep into sentient beings’ minds, and planting the healing root of happiness, bodhicitta.

* * *

Adrian Feldmann, a doctor from Melbourne who knew all Nick’s friends, didn’t enjoy that course at all. He regularly marched off down to Boudha for steak dinners. Like many newcomers, especially the Jewish ones, Adrian was appalled by the practice of prostrating. He also suspected there was a lot of brainwashing going on. Yet every time he tried to better Lama Zopa in an argument, he got nowhere. At one point when Rinpoche was talking about the subtle aspects of death, Adrian stood up and said, “Do you mean to tell me that all those people I have certified dead were not really dead?” He was clearly outraged by the thought. Lama Yeshe had yet to make an appearance.

One day Adrian walked out in the middle of a discourse and climbed to the top of the ancient hill overlooking the gompa. “Three Nepalese children looking after their goats sat down beside me and offered me some boiled sweets,” said Adrian. “This is reality, I thought. What was going on down there in the tent, that wasn’t reality. I looked across to the gompa balcony and there was Lama Yeshe, quietly watching me. Suddenly I knew exactly what was going to happen next. Sure enough, a few minutes later he appeared at my side and looking me square in the eye said, ‘If you want power, get back into that tent.’ That really floored me because it was the Carlos Castaneda/Don Juan spiritual power thing that interested me about Buddhism. But I looked back at him and said, ‘No.’ He just turned, talked to the children for a moment, and left. That was my first meeting with Lama Yeshe,” said Adrian.

When it was time for Lama Yeshe’s talk everyone was nicely keyed up and expecting relief, insight, and laughter. Everyone sat in the tent and waited and waited. Suddenly peals of high-pitched laughter burst forth. Lama Yeshe flung aside the zen covering his face—he had crept in and sat down among the students without even one of them noticing. It reduced everyone to tears of laughter.

Adrian Feldmann was ready to do battle during the question-and-answer session. As a doctor he was not impressed with the concept of reincarnation and argued back and forth about the signs of death. Lama Yeshe insisted that death was accompanied by subtle signs that continued to manifest long after what was called clinical death. Adrian sulked. Western doctors are used to being right. When someone asked about the causes of schizophrenia, Lama Yeshe said that these lay in confused messages received in one’s childhood, leading to an inability to make decisions, heightened sensitivity, and paranoia. Suddenly Adrian was impressed. He had recently worked in a psychiatric hospital and shared exactly that view—one also held by the famous British psychiatrist, R. D. Laing.

“What would you know about it?” called one student aggressively from the back. “Are you speaking from experience?” Lama put his hands together in prayer and leaned forward. “Of course, dear, how else would you like me to speak? From a book?”

A highly qualified biologist then asked several complex questions about sentience in plants. She had stories of cacti traveling, grieving, and showing signs of pleasure. Surely if an ant was sentient, weren’t plants sentient, too? Because Lama Yeshe’s English was so basic her questions had to be very simply worded, which meant everyone could understand them. Lama replied that organic elemental energy is not the same as sentience. Cacti are not sentient, as they do not have the potential to reach enlightenment.

One of Lama Yeshe’s favorite teaching words was “chocolate,” which signified to him all that was delicious and pleasurable, even blissful, in life. For example: “Enlightenment is not just chocolate at the end, in a lump. It is chocolate, chocolate, chocolate all the way!”

 

The Third Kopan Meditation Course

Third Kopan Meditation Course, Lama Yeshe, 1972From 1972: Unsurpassed Dharma Land of Enlightenment by Adele Hulse, Big Love author:

In November 1972 Zopa Rinpoche taught his third meditation course. Around fifty people attended, including Massimo Corona and his brother Luca, Piero and Claudio, Paula Koolkin, and Peter Kedge. Advertising flyers appeared in Kathmandu cafes such as the Camp Hotel, where Marcel Bertels, a serious Dutch lad from a conservative Catholic family, had just met a French-Canadian, Nicole Couture. They both decided to do “the course,” as it was now called.

An Australian couple—Nick Ribush, a doctor, and Marie Obst, a nurse—also heard about the course and went up to Kopan to check things out. On the notice board they found advertisements for Lama Zopa’s month-long course, costing 300 rupees, as well as the Burmese teacher Goenka’s ten-day vipassana meditation course, for 100 rupees. “Let’s do the short one,” said Marie. After a full Catholic upbringing she was more interested in shedding religion than acquiring an alternative one. But Nick was “looking” and they booked into the longer one.

Twenty-six-year-old law graduate Helly Pelaez, the only child of a prominent Spanish cardiologist from Granada, was definitely looking. Running into Steve Malasky and his mother in Amala’s, Boudhanath’s only restaurant, she heard about the course and subsequently attended an early group interview with Lama Yeshe. “Why do you want to do the course?” Lama asked.

“I said I didn’t know if I could even do it,” said Helly. “According to him, everybody could, even animals. I thought him strange and was glad he wasn’t the one teaching.

“While I was walking back down to my room in Boudha, I started to feel funny, like someone was with me in my mind, working on it, stronger and stronger. Back in my room I then spent the two most horrible days of my life. I cried non-stop. The fact is I’d had lots of fights with my parents and led a very unstable life. Coming to India was a last resort for me. I had decided that if this course didn’t change things for me, I was going to kill myself. A week before it began, I moved up to Kopan. Lama Yeshe had gone to Dharamsala and I thought, ‘Good, I don’t want to see him.’”

Nick, Marie, Helly, and an English girl, Suzanne Lee, walked up to Kopan together. On the way they encountered Anila Ann—bald, robes tied round her long skinny flanks, working like a ditch digger at a trouble spot in the road. From the hill they were able to look down into a magical valley carved into terraced rice paddies with two-storey ochre colored houses hedged with roses. Chickens clucked in attics, chilies dried on roofs and were laid out in neatly swept forecourts. Dogs barked incessantly and children called across the fields: “Babuuuuuuuuuu! Didiiiiiiiiiii!” Hindu puja bells tinkled, incense wafted on the air, and old men puffed on bidis (hand-rolled Indian clove cigarettes) in the shade of ancient trees. Winding through this scene ran a rutted dirt road that became a rough track, from which branched little paths like rivulets, some of which led to the top of Kopan hill.

Here they came, the fortunate traveling children of the world’s middle classes, toting their backpacks, super down sleeping bags, toilet paper, and patented antibiotic medicines. They carried copies of Hermann Hesse’s Siddhartha, Baba Ram Dass’s Be Here Now, and well-thumbed copies of Lama Govinda’s The Way of the White Clouds. The Kopan course was becoming the place to be even though Kopan had no electricity and all the monastery’s water had to be carried up the hill from a spring 150 feet below the gompa in two big Nepali biscuit tins dangling from a yoke balanced across the coolies’ shoulders. The chief water carrier was a cheery Nepali, Bir Bahadur.

Hashish was still legal in Nepal, but while some occasionally slipped down the hill for a chillum or two, most did the course straight, beginning to end. Blotting paper tabs of LSD were carefully tucked away.

Everyone was given a copy of the cyclostyled notes that Massimo Corona, Anila Ann, and others had prepared from the first two courses. These were now neatly arranged into a folder and given an extensive title similar in length to those of the traditional Sanskrit and Tibetan scriptures: The Wish-Fulfilling Golden Sun of the Mahayana Thought Training: Directing in the Shortcut Path to Enlightenment. This was one of the first lam-rim (or “stages of the path”) teachings to appear in English.

The popular view that Buddhism was not really a religion was somewhat undermined by Lama Zopa Rinpoche’s monastic demeanor and the fact that quite a few prayers were recited, regularly. Nevertheless, the principles of lam-rim are universal and adjustable to any society at any time. This is, perhaps, their most magical and fascinating characteristic.
Zopa Rinpoche’s teaching plan during this course was to concentrate on the hell realms. On and on, day after day there was talk of hell realms and still more hell realms, all in Rinpoche’s halting English, punctuated by frequent pauses and long silences. It is no coincidence that Rinpoche’s name, zopa, means patience.

Most of the students present did not realize that during those long silences Rinpoche meditated deeply. When he did speak, to the untrained ear Rinpoche sounded as though he were simply repeating himself. In actuality, each time he addressed his subject matter, he did so from a slightly different angle, thereby allowing his listeners to enter more and more deeply into the experience he was describing. Westerners were used to receiving information in a more linear fashion and they were often looking for something pre-packaged, some spiritual insight they could swallow whole. Rinpoche’s style required them to stop, listen, and turn over in their minds what they were hearing. Those who related to Rinpoche’s teachings as if they were listening to a university lecturer could easily become frustrated by his seemingly endless repetitions. However, those who followed what he was saying as if they were being led through a guided meditation—which, in fact, they were—found his style of teaching remarkably effective for their minds and often deeply moving.

A few students escaped the course on a full moon night to attend the legendary acid parties at Swayambhu. One New Yorker returned the next day literally trembling, having experienced hell realms during his trip in all the vivid detail that Lama Zopa had just spent several days describing.

Some who attended were irritated by the course, others inspired. Marcel Bertels took to it like a duck to water and was soon meditating even during the session breaks. College graduates happily prostrated themselves over and over and chanted mantras as if they had been saying them all their lives. The more excitable claimed they saw lights and had visions. Maybe they did. During the breaks, everyone except Marcel chatted and gossiped. During the lectures that followed, Zopa Rinpoche would tell them what they had been talking about. They were convinced he was clairvoyant. The whole experience felt very close, magical, and powerful.

Once again Lama Yeshe returned quietly to Kopan sometime around the middle of the meditation course. None of the new students even knew he existed, until one day Anila Ann asked Nick Ribush if he would attend to his leg. A cut had become infected. “I was told that he had a heart problem, so I thought it best to give him a penicillin shot,” said Nick. “However, I hadn’t tightened the syringe properly and the stuff shot out all over the place. ‘It’s okay, dear,’ he told me, ‘maybe we try again tomorrow.’ So they got more penicillin and I gave him the shot, then visited every day to change the dressings.” From then on everyone called him Dr. Nick.

Lama Zopa had been telling everyone that it was harder for a woman to become enlightened than for a man, which upset all the women. Marie asked Nick to seek Lama Yeshe’s opinion. When they came to learn that he’d told Nick, “Of course women can get enlightened!” Lama Yeshe instantly became their hero. As it turns out, this disagreement between the lamas was more apparent than real. In talking about the additional difficulties women faced in becoming enlightened, Lama Zopa was addressing in part the unfortunate, but very real, obstacles that women—especially those in patriarchal societies—must overcome if they dare to defy cultural expectations in their desire to pursue a solitary life of contemplation. Lama Yeshe addressed the issue from a different perspective. His response—that men and women had the same spiritual capacity—focused on the fact that everyone, whether male or female, equally possesses buddha-nature: the potential to achieve full enlightenment. From this point of view, there is absolutely no difference between the sexes.

At the very end of the course, Lama Yeshe gave a talk. By this time many students had heard of him, although few had seen him. It didn’t take long to work out that here was the real power behind Kopan. Before actually conferring refuge and lay precepts, Lama Yeshe spoke to the course students about the meaning of taking refuge and committing to taking any number of the five lay precepts. While he spoke, Rinpoche sat in the back of the room writing out “refuge names” in Tibetan. At the end of the refuge ceremony, Marie received the name Yeshe Khadro, and this is what she was mainly called for the rest of her life, especially by her Dharma brothers and sisters. As for Nick, he received the name Thubten Zopa, but out of his great respect for Rinpoche, he never used it. In any case, everyone was already calling him Dr. Nick, so Dr. Nick he remained. Both were very happy they had chosen to do the long course.

The Second Kopan Meditation Course

Peter Kedge, 1972From 1972: Unsurpassed Dharma Land of Enlightenment by Adele Hulse, Big Love author:

Word spread that Lama Zopa was about to give a second meditation course in March 1972. More students arrived at Kopan, among them two English engineers from the Rolls-Royce aeronautical division, Peter Kedge and Roy Tyson.

Peter Kedge: “With our friend, fellow engineer Harvey Horrocks, and another friend we had spent six months driving a Land Rover from Britain to Nepal, with many adventures on the way. One morning in Afghanistan, after setting up camp in complete darkness, we awoke to find that we had stopped right in front of the huge buddha statues carved into the cliffs at Bamiyan, the same statues that were destroyed by the Taliban in 2001.

“Contact with Tibetans from one of the refugee camps in Pokhara awoke my interest in spirituality and some friends introduced us to what became for a time my personal bible, Ram Dass’s Be Here Now. One night on a trek in the Solu Khumbu Everest region of Nepal, I sat in a freezing cold Sherpa lodge and by candlelight tried one of the practices in this book. This was to visualize Guru Rinpoche (which I mispronounced ‘Rinposh’) and basically inhale white light and exhale all physical and mental negativities in the form of black fog. It seemed really strange.

“After ten days in that area, where everywhere one looks there are prayer flags, mani stone, monasteries and ascetics’ caves, we returned to Kathmandu and heard about a meditation course in English and a Canadian nun at this place called Kopan. Roy and I decided to go there. Harvey went on to Australia and our other friend went back to England.

“We arrived on the first day of the course, just in time for thirty minutes of full-length prostrations led by Anila Ann. We threw ourselves on the floor in front of a huge appliqué thangka of Buddha Avalokiteshvara, the one with a thousand arms, all amid billowing clouds of incense smoke.

“There were about a dozen people there. When I saw them assembled at the first breakfast, I remember thinking that compared with Roy and me, who were pretty conservative, they looked like very seasoned travelers in their Indian, Nepali, and Afghan clothes, their braided long hair, beards and so forth. I do remember feeling at the time that I didn’t belong there, but that feeling changed.”

The ground floor of the gompa was completed just before the course began, which was held in the old gompa (the original astrologer’s house). Lama Yeshe stayed at Kopan this time, keeping one eye on the construction team and the other on the meditators. Losang Nyima ran the kitchen and Ann McNeil rushed about typing up the most recent text translations on an ancient typewriter that someone had found in Kathmandu, checking up on the builders, and attending Rinpoche’s lectures.

Zopa Rinpoche’s teaching style demanded patience. Rinpoche’s vocabulary was still quite limited and he would cough and repeat himself interminably, over and over. Massimo could follow better than most because he had spent time with Rinpoche before the course, helping him put together a thirty-page booklet in English. This did not, however, prevent him from occasionally viewing Rinpoche with some skepticism. In an aside during one session, Massimo mumbled, “What does he know?” Rinpoche looked straight at Massimo and said, “Because I have realized these teachings.” No one had ever heard him say anything so direct before about his spiritual accomplishments and—according to common knowledge—he has never been heard to repeat anything like it ever again.

Peter Kedge: “We were given two or three mimeographed sheets with information on them. I just couldn’t understand why this young monk, Zopa as we called him, would close his eyes and talk through the first ringing of the lunch bell, the second ringing of the lunch bell, the third ringing of the lunch bell…until it seemed we’d get no lunch at all. To me, we had the information on these sheets, it was time for lunch and that was it. “On one such occasion I was leaning back against the wall of the gompa and really getting very annoyed and feeling quite rebellious, having heard the lunch bell call us for at least the third time. Then Zopa opened his eyes and, looking directly at me, asked if I had been the one to make the altar and put the flower offering there that morning. And yes, it had been me—it was my turn on the roster. I suddenly realized that Zopa wasn’t just a monk but someone extraordinary, with insights I had never experienced.

“Over the next few days I came to realize that this was a person who lived what he was explaining 100 percent. It came as a shock to realize that actually, I was sitting in front of a modern-day saint. I had always thought of saints as an extinct species. Spending time with Zopa like this, and later with Lama Yeshe, made me realize that saints really exist.”

During this meditation course, the focus had been on Zopa Rinpoche, and for a long time Peter wasn’t aware that there was another lama on the hill. “One day during the lunch break I was sunbathing on the steps leading down into the room in the old house where the course was held,” Peter recalled. “A monk came out and said, ‘Excuse me,’ as he needed to pass. I said, ‘Sure,’ and moved a little. He said, ‘Thank you so much.’ I couldn’t imagine why he was really thanking me, but he beamed and I felt a radiance from him. That was Lama Yeshe. A few days later, Anila Ann, who was in many ways my mentor during that course and subsequently, said to me, ‘You have to have a meeting with Lama Yeshe. You know, Lama Yeshe is the guru here. Lama Zopa is Lama Yeshe’s disciple.’ And so the first pieces were beginning to fall into place.

The planned month-long course lasted only ten days. Suddenly, Zopa Rinpoche announced that Geshe Rabten had sent a telegram. He and Lama Yeshe were to go to Dharamsala immediately for a teaching by Kyabjé Trijang Rinpoche on the Six Yogas of Naropa. Half an hour later the lamas left in a taxi and it was up to the two ordained people on the hill—Anila Ann McNeil and Jhampa Zangpo—to keep things going.

“But that’s how it was with the lamas,” said Ann. “You never knew what was going to happen next. Once I thought I’d write a book called Life with Lama, but it took me three days just to write down what happened in one day so I gave up.”

The day after the lamas left, a film crew from the American television newsmagazine 60 Minutes turned up. They were doing a feature on American hippies’ favorite overseas haunts, and Kathmandu was naturally at the top of the list. The director was keen to get the people who were wearing monks’ robes on film. “They wanted us to prostrate to the sun on top of the hill and a whole lot of other ridiculous things, so we decided not to go along with them at all,” said Ann. “I told the reporter that he might like to ask the Dalai Lama some questions instead of looking for sensational extremes.”

Building Kopan Gompa

Lama Yeshe as foreman, 1972From 1972: Unsurpassed Dharma Land of Enlightenment by Adele Hulse, Big Love author:

Now that it was winter, the track that passed for a road up to Kopan was dry. It was time to start building Kopan’s gompa. Åge made a beautiful little architectural model of the proposed design. Monks from the newly re-established Gyuto Tantric College in Dalhousie happened to be in Boudhanath to bless the stupa, which had been under repair for many years after having been struck by lightning. Lama requested them to come and bless Kopan. The monks came up and sat around the hill, smiling at Åge’s little model. They had never seen anything like it before.

Together with Lama Yeshe and Lama Zopa they performed a solemn puja, harmonic multiphonic single-voice chords echoing around the valley as they called on all the buddhas, bodhisattvas, Dharma protectors, and landlord spirits to bless the hill and the building to be erected there. Lama Yeshe told his students that every place has its own specific landlord spirits. The gompa at Kopan was given the name Ogmin Jangchub Chöling, which means Unsurpassed Dharma Land of Enlightenment.

Afterward, Ann asked Lama what he had prayed for during the puja. “I prayed that if this gompa is going to be really beneficial and benefit countless beings, then may it be built right away without any obstructions, because I don’t have much time and I don’t want to waste my life. But things look good. During such pujas, we look for auspicious signs. Did you see the two horses galloping up the hill during the puja? One of them was white. That is a very auspicious sign!” he told her.

Construction began with Lama Yeshe taking the role of foreman. He supervised everything. His students had donated the funds to build this gompa, and he wasn’t going to waste one penny. Max spent every spare moment of her time purchasing building materials—and ferrying them up the hill as well. The Nepali contractors would leave everything at the bottom of the hill, refusing to even attempt the terrible Kopan road. Fortunately, Max had recently bought a small Jeep through a contact at the King’s Palace.

An American student, Steve Malasky, returned to Kopan with some money he had received from a health insurance payout. He wanted to use his money to build a Tibetan tower at one end of the Kopan land. Lama Yeshe approved the plan and design and gave him permission to go ahead and build his fantasy. “First of all I had to find enough rock,” said Steve. “One day Lama Zopa came over, pointed to a particular spot and said, ‘Dig there!’ The Nepali crew I’d hired dug down and found this immense granite boulder. When cut and chiseled it provided just enough blocks for the tower walls.”

Tibetans weren’t able to pronounce Steve’s name correctly so at Kopan he was always called “Esteeb”.

Two small huts were also built at Kopan; one was for Max and Åge moved into the other. The gompa itself included rooms for the lamas. Then there was “Esteeb’s tower.” “Lama never stopped teasing me about that tower. It ended up costing more than the gompa!” said Steve.

Lama Yeshe’s next project was a little row of retreat rooms. While these were in the planning stage, Ann asked Lama how big they should be. He lay down on the ground indicating that she should draw a line, one at the top of his head and another at the soles of his feet. That was enough room for anybody, he said. Lama Yeshe was not a tall man, though people often thought he was huge. Over the years many of his students reported that his apparent size would occasionally change quite dramatically. This seemed to be one of his powers.

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