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The birth of Wisdom Publications

Lama and Rinpoche, New Zealand, 1975From 1975: We Need a Foundation by Adele Hulse, Big Love author:

Nick Ribush and many of the IMI Sangha had been actively engaged in publishing activities at Kopan since even before obtaining their own Gestetner printing machine. The Wish-Fulfilling Golden Sun and the various editions of Meditation Course Notes had been published under the imprint of the International Mahayana Institute.

On 8 December 1975 Jesse Sartain, an American publisher who was a student of Geshe Ngawang Dhargyey and had been studying at the Tibetan Library in Dharamsala, visited Lama Yeshe; he suggested that the talks from the 1974 American tour be published. Nick was passionate about publishing the lamas’ work and was invited to the meeting. Lama Yeshe suggested that a book be published jointly by Jesse’s Conch Press and what he now called Publications for Wisdom Culture, Kopan’s own imprint. The Conch/Wisdom collaboration, properly printed, bound and titled Wisdom Energy, was published in 1976. It was edited by Jon Landaw and his old friend Alex Berzin. By the 1980s this publishing endeavor would transmute into Wisdom Publications with offices in Boston, Massachusetts, and would eventually become one of the world’s foremost English-language Buddhist publishing houses.

 

Statues and Images

It was typical of new students to want to buy a Buddha statue before leaving Nepal. “I went everywhere in Kathmandu and Patan and saw hundreds of statues, but none of them appealed to me because they were all mass produced,” said one young man. “Then in Boudha I saw a beautiful statue that had come from Tibet but was far too expensive for me. The only valuable thing I had with me was a really good pair of German binoculars because I was a passionate ornithologist. I put a ‘For sale’ notice up at Kopan, but there were no takers. Then a monk came to me to say that Lama Yeshe wanted to know how much I was asking for them. Of course I halved the price for him. The monk came to see me again the next day and told me Lama Yeshe wanted to know what price I really wanted for them. I told him the full amount, he gave me the money, and I was then able to buy that statue.”

That same year, Lama sent Mummy Max off to find a Tara statue. “I told him I’d go the next day,” Max recalled, “but he said, ‘No, now. You go and don’t come back without it! It’s there; you find it.’ I went all over Kathmandu on what happened to be a Nepali public holiday, so half the shops were shut. I looked in all the obvious places, went to Patan [the artistic center of Kathmandu], looked everywhere and couldn’t find anything. So I started on the back streets. I was exhausted and sure that I was never going to find this statue. But Lama knew. He knew exactly and I’m convinced he led me to it, because I didn’t have a clue. Finally, when it was getting dark I found the perfect statue in a pile in a statue maker’s warehouse. When I got back to Kopan and showed it to him, all he said was ‘Huh!’”

 

 

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Mahakala, the IMI protector

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

Lama Yeshe had already explained to Ngawang Chötak that Mahakala was both a protector deity and a yidam, a meditational deity. The concept of protectors was something new to the Westerners. Within the Buddhist pantheon, there are protectors of place, such as those the lamas made offerings to at Chenrezig in 1974. There are also Dharma protectors, some of whom are yidams, others not. Lama decided that Mahakala was the protector of the International Mahayana Institute, so he instructed the IMI monks and nuns to do the Mahakala sadhana in English every day, as well as a Mahakala group retreat.

“He didn’t tell us much about protectors,” said Yeshe Khadro. “I had the impression he didn’t really want to. He was very serious about the whole thing.” “I watched him go black before my very eyes,” said new nun Thubten Yeshe. “He turned into Mahakala, full of wrathful compassion.”

Lama Pasang thought that Lama Yeshe himself was actually a protector. When shaving Lama’s head one day he took the opportunity to search his skull for auspicious signs. Many such physical characteristics, which indicate that a person has achieved a high degree of spiritual perfection, are explained in the sutras. Suddenly Lama said, “What are you doing? Shouldn’t do!” Lama Pasang became convinced that a particular formation of three lines was just what he was looking for. “I not exactly see,” he said, “but I get good feeling that day and some hours later I not forget that good feeling.” Lama sometimes told Peter Kedge and Mummy Max that Kopan had “strong protection.”

 

“We Need a Foundation”

One day, while standing on the gompa steps with Nick Ribush, Lama Yeshe said, “I think we need an organization to hold all of this together.” After the evening discussion sessions a small group of trusted students chosen by Lama began to meet in the library above the office. This group, which came to be called the Central Committee, included Mummy Max, Dr. Nick, Jon Landaw, Yeshe Khadro, Peter Kedge, Marcel Bertels, and two others, Australian Wendy Finster and American Petey Shane. Lama outlined some definites: He wanted the words “council,” “Mahayana” and “preserve” in his organization’s name. Basically, Lama wanted the organization’s name to reflect his work; he was trying to bring not just Tibetan Buddhism, but Mahayana Dharma to the West. Lama was absolutely certain that given the chance, Buddhadharma could take hold in any culture.

While only a short distance to the north of Kopan Monastery the Cultural Revolution was bursting forth in China, Lama Yeshe joked about his own “Dharma Cultural Revolution.” Lama had been adding the words “for Wisdom Culture” to the names of his new centers, though some students were uncertain about this. As usual, however, Lama was extremely clear and felt strongly that “Wisdom Culture” defined the essence of the FPMT.

What we normally understand as the meaning of “culture” is the relative mind or spirit, the collective illusions of a certain land or people. It actually has nothing to do with the wisdom truth of Dharma. If we stretch the meaning we could say that Dharma is the “culture” of our progressively developing wisdom. I was brought up in a great culture that is two thousand years old. Now I am working with Westerners. I think the current meeting of East and West is taking place on a gross level, but could develop progressively toward a finer level of understanding. I think we must work toward a wisdom culture.

Wisdom Culture is rooted in the joy, love and utter dedication to the service of others that both lamas embodied and inspired. Wisdom Culture is a synonym for the perfect integration of the union of wisdom and method. Over time the phrase was dropped as more centers simply used the word “institute.”

Peter Kedge was now Lama’s attendant; he took the group’s ideas to him. One title that they all liked was “Yeshe Foundation,” which in its longer version of “Yeshe Foundation for Wisdom Culture” was employed for a short time. Lama Yeshe’s response was, “Ah, you people have no idea. ‘Yeshe’ is nothing. Here one minute, gone the next. Not important.

I want to preserve the Mahayana teachings. If you can’t get the name right, you don’t know what I’m doing.” He did not want some snappy name. The name he clearly preferred was “Council for the Preservation of the Mahayana Tradition.” This title would eventually be adopted as the name for the collected group of directors of all the centers and projects affiliated with Lama Yeshe and Lama Zopa Rinpoche.

The Central Committee meetings often went on until 2:00 am or even later. Yeshe Khadro would try to grab at least a couple of hours of sleep before attending morning meditations led by Tubten Pende. “One morning I decided I definitely deserved a sleep-in and so I didn’t go to the session,” she said. “Fifteen minutes later Lama sent one of the boys down to me with the message, ‘Lama wants you to write some letters.’ I jumped up bright as a button, amazed that he knew I was sleeping in. But he knew everything that was going on at Kopan.”

The mo, the use of dice for divination, was a specialty of certain lamas. Lama Zopa Rinpoche eventually became very famous for his mos, but no one ever saw Lama Yeshe use dice. His specialty was to roll his eyes back into his head, go silent, and then speak his piece. It seemed to be a kind of internal mo.

It is also possible to do a mo by counting the beads on a mala in certain ways. Lama described his own father doing this for people when Lama was a child. Only once did Lama Lhundrup see Lama Yeshe use a mala in this way: A local Nepali family came to Kopan complaining about the loss of their precious buffalo and asked Lama to find it. “He was doing something with the mala and then he say, ‘Go there, that place.’ When they went there they found their buffalo,” said Lama Lhundrup.

“I never saw Lama make an observation with either dice or a rosary,” said Peter Kedge, who toured with Lama for four years and remained close to him. “Sometimes people would ask Lama for advice and he would tell them to ask Rinpoche to make a mo. Sometimes I would ask Lama about various things related to administration or business and Lama would just seem to think for a second and then say, ‘Should be okay. Let do.’ I always felt that Lama knew exactly what the outcome would be, that it wasn’t necessary for him to go through the motions of making a divination.”

News arrived that a student who had told Lama Yeshe he was going down to the Theosophical Society in Madras, had in fact jumped off the roof there and died. “What could I do?” Lama asked Adrian. “He wanted to leave so I had to let him go.” A puja was held for him at Kopan, during which Jimi Neal had a vivid dream that Lama Yeshe, holding a dorje (vajra) with a thread tied to it, went into the bardo (the intermediate state the mind traverses between death and the next rebirth) where he connected with the boy and pulled him up. Later Lama told Jimi, “He’s okay now.” Naturally, many people spoke of this death but Lama Yeshe insisted it was not a suicide. He did not explain further.

The meditation course ended with the conferring of refuge and lay vows and a Vajrasattva empowerment, taken by twenty people. Almost immediately one participant decided he didn’t want to hear any more and left Kopan. Empowerments were considered to be serious things. It was felt that if you didn’t take this commitment seriously the initiating lama’s energies were weakened. Ablaze with anxious devotion, one of the new nuns ran to Lama Yeshe about the departing student, saying, “Lama, Lama, he’s going to hell! He took the initiation and now he’s not going to do the retreat!” “Dear,” said Lama, “if he is not going to do the practice then we are not communicating. Initiation is communication. If there is no communication, there is no initiation and therefore there’s no downfall. So, what’s the problem?”

 

 

 

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 Bodhgaya Teachings

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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