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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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More teachers, More students

Lama Yeshe, Kopan, 1975From 1976: “Heaven is Now!” by Adele Hulse, Big Love author:

Lama Yeshe had planned for a Westerner to once again lead the spring meditation course and had asked Piero to do it, but unfortunately, Piero was now in Italy.

“I had been the Kopan typist since 1974,” recalled Thubten Pemo. She wasn’t the only one. Nicole Couture, Yeshe Khadro and others also typed constantly. Nicole had been warned that those who were smart didn’t admit to being able to type because they would immediately be given work. But Pemo always happily accepted typing work.

One day, she was walking with Marcel, for whom she was doing some typing. “We met Lama Yeshe on the path and asked him who was going to teach the course in Piero’s place. Lama looked at me and replied, ‘You. You can teach the course. Think about it and come back to me tomorrow and let me know.’ I couldn’t believe it. I knew nothing. My entire Dharma education consisted of four of Rinpoche’s courses. But since Lama had asked me, he must have thought that I could do it. Nevertheless, I was terrified. How could I possibly teach for four hours a day for thirty days? That’s one hundred and twenty hours! The next day I went to Lama’s room and said that if he wanted me to teach, I would teach. I thought Lama would tell me what to teach and in what order, and that he would teach me how to teach. But no. Lama said just one sentence to me. ‘You become Manjuishri and then you give the teachings.’ Of course, I had no idea how to become Manjushri.”

And so Thubten Pemo became the first Western female to teach an entire month-long lam-rim course at Kopan. Ngawang Chötak agreed to lead the meditations. It was an enormous job and Pemo spent every spare moment studying. The course began during the second half of March. At her request the lamas did a puja on the first morning of the course to bless it and then drove off in the Jeep, heading for the airport and India. They were returning to Dharamsala for the ordination ceremony of a new group of students.

Pemo’s course was a great success. Later, ten of Pemo’s students went to Dharamsala to do a month-long lam-rim retreat at Tushita. This all made Lama Yeshe and Lama Zopa Rinpoche so happy that Lama was heard to exclaim, “My nuns can teach! My nuns can teach!”

Rinpoche wrote her a beautiful letter of thanks:

Most dear Thubten Pemo Rinpoche,

How are you? We have met your incredible disciples. They look that they have gained much wisdom. That must mean you have that much wisdom. We think and HOPE that you will attain Manjushri soon by Mahakala’s continual protection. We will pray for that.

See you soon,

               Yeshe, Zopa

Among those at Pemo’s course were some very dedicated students, such as Dharmawati Brechbuhl from Indonesia, Caroline Crossman and Tony Beaumont from Australia, and several others who would become long-term practitioners. Since that time it has become quite normal for Western women to give Dharma teachings all over the world.

A New Tradition: Public Examinations

IMI monks and nuns, Kopan 1974From 1974: Introducing Adamantine Being (Vajrasattva) by Adele Hulse, Big Love author:

Lama Yeshe was very keen for his own students to be examined. Now that most of them had been studying for at least two years, Lama began holding public examinations at Kopan starting in December of 1974. The dates on which these were to be held were even advertised in Kathmandu. Each person was given a lam-rim subject, sometimes not until the exam was just about to begin. He or she had to give a talk on the topic in front of all the other students and then had to debate with Lama Yeshe and Zopa Rinpoche. These proved to be very interesting and successful events, where Lama carefully boosted the confidence of those who needed it. He was still constantly amazed at the lack of self-confidence among the apparently powerful Injis. This was also one of Lama’s teaching methods aimed at preparing his monks and nuns eventually to be able to teach the Dharma in the West.

From Lama Yeshe’s lecture to the IMI Sangha in preparation for the first public examinations:

“I think it is necessary that you know why we are going to hold examinations of IMI Sangha.

Since you took ordination, your life, your body and speech, do not belong to you, nor do they belong to Lama. They belong to all universal living beings. It was because of your understanding that you decided to live in the thirty-six vows, to renounce samsara. Lama did not push you. Therefore your duty is to integrate your body, speech and mind as much as possible into Dharma knowledge-wisdom and to give that light to all mother sentient beings. To do this it is not enough to spend all your life sitting on the mountain, doing a “Milarepa trip.” Nor is it enough to receive teachings on just one particular book—for example, the Vajrasattva text—and then spend your life studying that small information just for your own knowledge. To think that work such as this is the purpose of your life is a wrong conception.

You need to be able to explain the basic psychological Dharma wisdom terms that are found in the Prajnaparamita texts of Lord Buddha and in the commentaries written by Nagarjuna, Maitreya and Atisha. Those teachings have been integrated into the graduated path to liberation, the lam-rim. So the IMI Sangha have to at least know Lama Zopa’s lam-rim teaching completely.

The aim of establishing the Institute was to make sure you had the opportunity to study those teachings. You have to know and be able to explain these subjects at least intellectually. If you cannot even answer questions on an intellectual level, how can your actions become practice? First comes hearing, then intellectual understanding, then the experience, the realization.

So in order to have a clean-clear understanding you have to be able to express your thoughts and engage in debate. Many times you may think that you know the answers, you may even think you are Buddha. But when someone questions or contradicts you, then your words are nothingness, because of your limited mind. That can be very dangerous because you are thereby making Dharma wisdom tasteless, even making it smell like ka-ka. So by having deep understanding you have to be able to meditate and also to express yourself within the Sangha. In that way you keep your intellectual understanding and realizations together. You keep both your heart and your speech clean and working simultaneously.”

 

“Those public examinations were terrifying,” said Thubten Pemo. “Sometimes we were not told in advance what the topic would be or who was going to be examined. I remember speaking about impermanence and Rinpoche interrupting with questions. Dr. Nick called out and asked me something like, ‘Where does the ignorance go when we realize emptiness?’ and I replied, ‘Where does the darkness go when we turn on the light in the room?’ And everyone laughed.”

The First Meditation Course at Kopan

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

” Zina was still eager for Lama Yeshe to teach a course, but he refused. She turned to Lama Zopa Rinpoche. “She pestered me like a mosquito,” Rinpoche recalled. “She kept on asking until I began to feel encouraged in my heart and developed a strong wish to do it. I asked Lama Yeshe what he thought. He replied, ‘Well, if you think it will be beneficial, then you do it.’ So with Lama’s blessing I agreed,” said Zopa Rinpoche.

The first course was held in the spring of April 1971. It was springtime at Kopan, dry and breezy. The monsoon rains weren’t due to start until the end of May or early June, but the colder winter months had passed and the temperature was quite warm during the days.  Zina took charge of the overall arrangements and Zopa Rinpoche taught a ten-day course based on his stamp-filled text on thought transformation. With help from Anila Ann, he managed to translate six lines on hell, two lines on the perfect human rebirth, and one line on karma. These were developed into an extensive meditation on how to regard friends, enemies and strangers with equanimity and an explanation of the sufferings of animals and pretas (hungry ghosts). In those days, the only substantial book on Dharma that was available in English was Herbert Guenther’s translation of Gampopa’s Jewel Ornament of Liberation, which was first published in 1959. “I taught mainly about the lower realms, the sufferings of hell beings and animals, ending up with the sufferings of human beings,” said Rinpoche.

 

From Lama Zopa Rinpoche’s lam-rim teachings:

In order to realize the three lower realms we must fully see the sufferings that exist there. However, at the moment we have no power to perceive these things directly, and therefore we should try to experience those realms through our practice, using the examples shown in the teachings. In this way we can gain the power to see this suffering clearly in our minds.

Even at this moment most beings are suffering in the three lower realms, especially in the narak realms.

Their suffering has not been created by God, or fixed by some other being. It is only a creation of those suffering beings’ minds, just as in a dream we may sometimes suffer in a fire, or from all kinds of fearful persons or demons fighting and frightening us. In the same way that these fearful dreams and visions are the creation of our illusive mind, so are the suffering and the realms of the naraks and so forth the creation of beings’ ignorant minds. However, the narak realms are not the same as dreams, but are karmic creations of the ignorant mind. This is similar to the way that one place can be seen differently by two different people—one may see a clean place while another person may see a dirty place. Although the object is the same, the view varies according to the level of mind, fortune, and the karma the being has created. As the mind reaches higher levels the enjoyments and the visions change, and the transcendental awareness and happiness that we experience increases more and more.

Each living beings’ samsara is a creation of that mind; each living being’s enlightenment is also a mental creation. In a dim room lit by a small candle with a flickering flame, a person without acute perception may see a fearful moving animal or demon, become afraid, and perhaps throw something at it. This problem is only the creation of that person’s mind. The person with a calm, relaxed mind, on the other hand, will see what is actually there clearly. All experiences are created by the mind, and similarly the suffering of the narak being is merely the creation of the suffering being’s mind. Therefore the choice to experience suffering, to be in a suffering realm, or to be in the perfect peace of enlightenment depends upon the decision of the mind.

Around a dozen people took that course, Zengo’s students from Bodhgaya as well as Åge, Zina, and Claudio Cipullo. Claudio had been down in Bodhgaya when he found himself staring fixedly at a photo of Lama Yeshe. “I decided he was calling me! That course was like an explanation of my whole life,” said Claudio. Losang Nyima, Lama Yeshe’s student from Tibet, acted as umze (chant leader) and took care of the candles, water bowls, incense, and food offerings arranged on the altars. He also supervised all the cooking. During the course Lama Yeshe stayed down at Max’s house.

Two days before the end of the course Lama Yeshe, in the company of a Lhasa Apso, returned to Kopan and gave a couple of talks. This wonderful little dog accompanied him nearly everywhere he went and was much admired by everyone at Kopan. Many strays found their way to Kopan and devoured any food they were offered, but this little dog always sat back very nobly and waited. She never fought for her food or tried to get at it until everyone else had finished. Then she’d eat alone, quietly. Actually, it was Rinpoche’s dog, a gift from his mother. She was named Drolma, which is Tibetan for Tara, the female buddha of enlightened skillful activity.

Anila Ann did not attend the course. “I wasn’t sure whether I wanted to do it or not. When I asked Lama Zopa, he was silent for about fifteen minutes; then he said it would be worthwhile. So I started it, but one day Lama Yeshe came up from Max’s house, called me out, and said, ‘Ann, you’re going to leave the course, walk up to Lawudo with some people, and spend the summer there. Lama Zopa will fly up in a few days’ time but there is no room in the plane for you.’ He said that he and Max were going to India.

“I suddenly felt very unsure about everything. He held out his arm, golden, luminous, and precious, and offered me his hand. I took it very gently and he said, ‘Don’t worry. Go to my room tonight and on my bed you’ll find my cloak. Wrap it around you and sit on my bed and meditate. Tomorrow you can leave for Lawudo.’

“After supper that night I went straight to Lama’s room at Max’s. It was actually the sunroom and had a wonderful view overlooking the Boudha stupa. I snuggled under his thick cloak, feeling a bit lost, a little cast aside. I knew Lama Zopa would take care of me at Lawudo, but just the same, I wasn’t feeling very secure. As for meditation, the best I could do was visualize Lama Yeshe sitting in front of me. Then his mouth opened as if he was about to speak, but it kept opening wider and wider until I was looking through it into this incredible vastness of a moonless night full of stars. It was like looking into the universe. His mouth and face melted away and there was just this vast emptiness. Suddenly I felt the shock of it and the vision stopped immediately.

“It was years before I realized that during those first few months Lama had actually given me all the teachings he had to give, but in a very subtle way.”

Zopa Rinpoche’s return to Lawudo that year, and his previous visit in May 1970, marked the beginning of his fulfilling the commitment made by the previous Lawudo Lama to establish some form of school for the local Sherpa children. “

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