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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.

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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?”

 

 

 

Work at Kopan

Lama Yeshe, Kopan, 1973.From 1973: First Steps First Students by Adele Hulse, Big Love author:

Before going to Kopan as suggested, Steven Levy had called in to see Lama Yeshe at Tushita in August to make sure that Lama still wanted a gardener.

“He reached under his little meditation table and pulled out a gardening trowel,” Steven recalled. “‘You know how to use this? We’ll talk more when you come to Nepal,’ he said. I was amazed that he even remembered me. When I got to the monastery, Yeshe Khadro was in the office. I told her that Lama had told me to come but I didn’t have any money. She told me I had to work for my keep and could sleep in the storeroom. It was pretty awful.

“Then Lama showed up. Every day Max would return from Kathmandu with her Jeep full of plants. When Lama came downstairs after breakfast, he was all business. It was always, ‘What are you doing? Why did you do that? Where are Mummy’s plants? Where do you think this one should go? What about this tree? Lama is busy now…see you later!’ I’d be left wandering around trying to work out where to put things. I’d dig a hole and then he would suddenly show up again, demanding, ‘You think this is good place? Are you sure?’ The minute he said that, I’d say, ‘Weeellll…’ and he’d immediately jump on me. ‘You’re not sure? When you are sure, Lama will come back!’

“Every time I planted something he’d ask if I was sure. When I said I was, he’d say, ‘But are you sure that you are sure?’ And we’d both crack up laughing. That laugh of Lama’s was so infectious…it was like sonar, laser. I’d like to have a tape of Lama’s laugh to listen to forever. But he was heavy, too. I would dig a dozen holes for some plants. ‘Why are you putting that plant there?’ I’d remind him that hours earlier we had both agreed on that spot. ‘Do you think that Lama doesn’t know what he said? Put the plant over here!’ I’d move it back and forth, back and forth, and then he’d want it back in the original position. It seemed like he was testing me, seeing how far he could push me. He’d say, ‘Let’s dig here!’ I’d say, ‘No, I’ll dig that,’ and he’d give me a firm, loving shove with his shoulder, grab the shovel and say, ‘No, Lama will dig!’ I was thirty-two years old and he was only six years older, but he was like a father or even a grandfather. I felt like a child. He was ageless. His male mothering fed so many neglected, untouched, unloved places within me.”

Anila Ann watched how Lama interacted with everyone. “He climbed into our skins to find out what made us tick and mimicked our body language and mannerisms. He was just hilarious. If I was unhappy and feeling low, he’d find some way to make me feel valued. When he’d fixed me up, he’d turn to the next needy person and maybe do exactly the same thing with them, while I was still there. He’d flick an eye over at me to make sure I was getting it. Lama was just as skillful in showing us our negative traits as our positive qualities.

“He seemed to know intuitively when people were arriving and what had happened to them. I read his mail for him and he often knew what it contained before being told. Or he’d say to me, ‘Marcel is here—I can always tell when Marcel is here.’ I’d look out the window and there would be Marcel, coming out of his retreat hut. ‘Magic’ is the only word I have for it.

“Another example: We were always late getting to the airport with no time to spare at all, the other cars having already gone and Lama not quite ready every time. Finally, Lama would climb into the rotten little Nepali taxi and the driver would pump the ignition but it wouldn’t start! Lama couldn’t drive at all, but he’d lean over and turn the key and it would start right up, every time. ‘Okay, let’s go!’ he’d say, precluding any kind of conversation about what he’d just done.”

Lama also kept his eye on the money and gave Yeshe Khadro the job of accountant. “He was very astute,” she remembered. “He checked every transaction. When the tiny building I used as an office was pulled down and Pete Northend began building a big new kitchen/dining room complex in 1974, it was assumed that the larger of the two spare rooms would be the office. But no, Lama said it had to become a coffee shop. Shops make money, he told us, not offices.” And Lama Yeshe needed money. How else was he going to feed and support the growing number of young monks?

Money was always a big subject. Once when Anila Ann and Lama Lhundrup were greeting Lama Yeshe at Kathmandu airport, some American tourists came over and took their photos. Then they admired the lamas’ malas. “They aren’t for sale, are they?” They most certainly were and an excellent price was obtained. While they were haggling, however, Anila Ann drifted out of sight. She was sentimentally attached to her mala and had no intention of selling it.

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