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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?”

 

 

 

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The First Course at Chenrezig Institute

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

See you next year, psychic kiss.

Love love love love Lama Yeshe

 

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

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

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

 

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

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 Diamond Valley Course, Australia

The gompa at Diamond Valley, 1974From 1974: Introducing Adamantine Being (Vajrasattva) by Adele Hulse, Big Love author:

Nick Ribush’s old friends, Tom and Kathy Vichta, together with a team of students, had worked for eight months preparing for this course. It was to be held on an open piece of land out in the bush situated beside a pretty creek near the Vichtas’ small farm in Diamond Valley, which was in southeast Queensland. Pete Northend appeared just in time to build a small two-roomed cabin for the lamas out of mill ends lined with Styrofoam. Their cold water standpipe was the most sophisticated plumbing on site. The only hot water available came from a 44-gallon drum suspended over a fire.

After arriving in Sydney with the lamas, Anila Ann had immediately traveled to Diamond Valley to make sure everything was ready. Two hundred people turned up for the thirty-day course, and despite certain physical discomforts, the dropout rate was remarkably low. A big marquee sat above a tent city like a scene from the gold rush era. There was a “main street” and little clusters of tents tucked into gullies here and there. The kitchen tent had been set up beside the creek and tree trunks dragged into a semi-circle to serve as seating. The cuisine was rigidly purist—a macrobiotic diet of brown rice, vegetables, tofu, and miso,
all washed down with soy bean coffee and alfalfa tea.

Out in the tent city however, secret cakes were shared in the dark, cheeses were stashed away, and real coffee was brewed in out-of-the-way gullies. A few minor fights even broke out over sweet biscuits.

A local farmer, Ilse Lederman, decided to attend the course. At their first meeting Lama Yeshe told her that he had been a nun in his previous life and had a particular fondness for nuns. Ilse didn’t know what to make of that, but some years later she was ordained in the Theravadan tradition as Ayya Khema; she eventually wrote many books and became one of the best-known Buddhist nuns in the world.

Ilse’s husband, Gerd Lederman, provided a very special service: Every day he disposed of the contents of the portable lavatories.

The course followed the usual rigorous Kopan timetable. Everyone struggled to sit still on the plastic covered straw, which squeaked every time someone moved.

Yeshe Khadro, however, moved not an inch. YK’s mother lived nearby and Lama took time out to pay her a visit. “Marie was so happy and shining that I no longer worried about her being a Buddhist nun,” said Corrie Obst, a Catholic. “Lama Yeshe came to lunch and afterward he put one of those white scarves around me. It’s a funny thing but when my husband had died a few years before, my whole world had collapsed. When he gave me that scarf, all the worry and stress I’d been living with seemed to leave me. It never did come back,” she said.

Pete Northend had arrived in Australia with his Scottish friend from Kopan, Colin Crosbie, and another couple. It had been a long wild hippie ride that had ended in a confrontation with a female immigration officer in Singapore, where long hair on men was forbidden. “We all knew about the rules in Singapore so I tried to hide as much of it as I could by tying it up,” Pete described, “but she noticed it. So I lied, I said it was for religious reasons. She put ‘suspected hippie in transit’ on my passport and an armed guard escorted me onto the ship. But I kept my long hair.

“When the lamas arrived at Diamond Valley, Anila Ann asked me to draw their water. I didn’t really want them to see me because I just knew they would be right on my case. I crept up to their house very quietly. Well, Lama Yeshe was onto me in a flash. ‘Shing zö! How was your trip?’ he asked. I told him it was okay but that I’d had a bit of a problem with my long hair. ‘Well, if you have an attachment problem with your hair I can fix it very quick! I can chop it off!’ I knew I was attached to my hair and I felt bad about lying in Singapore so I said, ‘Okay, cut it off.’ Well, he absolutely massacred it. That same day five other people tried to even it up and in the end I had no hair at all. I looked ridiculous!”

Distracting love affairs were not unusual during courses. One student who had already attended several courses fell head over heels in love with a girl attending the course. It was love at first sight for him and he fondly imagined she felt the same. Unable to concentrate on Lama Zopa’s teachings, he went to see Lama Yeshe. “He listened patiently as I described how perfect, how psychic and magic my relationship with this girl was. Then he said, ‘Right now, dear, your mind is 100 percent deluded. She’s no different to this,’ and he tapped the Styrofoam wall lining. ‘You’re 100 percent deluded!’ I was annoyed by this and got up to leave. Suddenly he leapt off the bed, pinned me to the chair and, clamping his right hand on to my shoulder, stood over me, mumbling and blowing onto the crown of my head while vigorously rubbing up and down my spine with his left hand. It worked, because all my totally disturbing thoughts about this girl just died down. I was able to put them on hold until the end of the course.”

Lama Yeshe knew all about his students’ love affairs, about the chocolate stashes and their drug-taking. One day some of the wilder ones dropped some LSD and disappeared into the bush. “All of a sudden we looked up to see Lama Yeshe ahead of us skipping along from rock to rock and waving, not showing any displeasure or censure.”

Hank Sinnema was unsure if he wanted to remain at the course. “I skipped the teachings one day and was strolling around the bush when I spotted Lama Yeshe ahead of me. As he approached I started to feel apprehensive. He must have sensed this because he stopped and just stood looking at me. From his eyes beamed such a stream of love and compassion that my heart opened and I just felt transformed. To me he looked just like Saint Nicholas, from my Dutch childhood.” Running into people when they most needed it was part of Lama’s special magic.

The lamas took a day off to go to the beach in Tom Vichta’s van. Everyone got out to enjoy the view from the cliffs, but Lama Yeshe ran straight down to the water’s edge, hitched up his robes and waded in, splashing about with delight. He cupped the water in his hands and washed his face, leaping back in surprise at its saltiness. He had glimpsed the ocean in Calcutta and America but this appears to have been his first close encounter with it.

The ocean did not have the same appeal for Lama Zopa. He sat down to meditate against a tree, his back to the view, saying prayers for the sea creatures. No amount of encouragement would persuade him to stop and play. Lama was all for buying bathing shorts and diving in, but it was a Sunday and in those days that meant that all the shops were shut.

Peter Nelson was nineteen years old when he went to Diamond Valley. “One night I had an interview with Lama Yeshe. While I was waiting it started to rain, so I crawled under their little cabin to keep dry. I could hear Lama Yeshe walking around above me. From Lama Zopa’s room I could just hear his mala scraping the floor as he said mantras. During Rinpoche’s first teaching I had burst out crying, so I crept over and sat right under where I could hear his mala and imagined his blessings coming down through the crown of my head. I ran out when ants started biting me.

“A door opened and Lama Zopa called me into his room, which was pitch dark. He just sat there and held my hand while I cried for twenty minutes.

“When Lama Yeshe’s visitor left, he came to Rinpoche’s room and, in that lovely way of his, said, ‘You wanted to see me, dear?’ I had two questions: What was the difference between Buddha and Krishna? ‘None,’ he said. And how do I find my guru? He opened his eyes wide. ‘Dear, don’t you know?’ he said. ‘Lama Zopa is your guru.’”

Having the lamas in Australia and attending a meditation course among the gum trees was just too wonderful. On sunny days Lama Yeshe would lounge luxuriously on his tiny verandah, resplendent in a vivid cerise kaftan. One very hot day, a number of dedicated students met together and decided to build a permanent Australian center. That same afternoon, while everyone else was in the tent with Rinpoche and Lama Yeshe was alone in his little cabin, a bushfire broke out in the valley. Somebody had the presence of mind to hit the big dinner gong. Everybody rushed out to see fire rapidly approaching the cabin. “Quick, Lama!” they shouted, banging on his door. “Get out now! The fire is coming this way and your cabin is lined in plastic! It will go up like a bomb!” Lama just laughed at them. He told his frantic students that the fire was an auspicious omen indicating that the new Queensland center would grow very quickly. The fire stopped a hundred meters from the cabin. Lama Yeshe never even came out of his room to watch. Rinpoche just continued teaching.

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.”

Lama Yeshe’s Heart Condition

Lama Yeshe with his dog Dolma, 1971From 1971: The First Kopan Meditation Course by Adele Hulse, Big Love author:

“Ann returned to Kopan in September to find Lama Yeshe very unwell. She took him to the emergency department at the hospital in Kathmandu, where doctors duly informed her that Lama had an extremely serious heart condition. The doctors told them that in just a year or two Lama’s breathing would become difficult and he would grow weaker and weaker. “Naturally, this news freaked us all out,” said Ann. “Lama Yeshe, on the other hand, made light of it, which didn’t help matters much. For instance, when we wished him goodnight and said, ‘See you in the morning,’ he’d reply, ‘Yes, well, if I’m not dead tomorrow!’ Oh God, we thought, here we are, starting to build a gompa at Kopan, and he’s going to be dead in two years.”

Many years later, Zopa Rinpoche related that Lama Yeshe had told him that the doctors in Kathmandu had actually given him just one year to live.

“Poor Lama, poor Lama! Soon he’ll die!” Lama Yeshe said to Åge.

“But you’ll get a good rebirth,” Åge replied.

In her quiet way Max was still paying for everything, but Lama was also looking after Max. “I was in a taxi with him in Kathmandu one day when Lama mentioned that he had to take a present to someone,” said Anila Ann. “It turned out to be the wife of an architect that Max had been fooling around with before she met the lamas. Lama seemed to spend a lot of time cleaning up after people.

Still more people began enrolling in Lama Yeshe’s Sunday classes. Among them was Jeffrey Miller, the American who would later come to be known as Lama Surya Das. He had been in the audience almost a year earlier when Lama Yeshe had given his very first public talk at the International Yoga Conference in Delhi in December 1970. “Whenever I had a chat with Lama Yeshe,” Surya Das recalled, “he’d exclaim, ‘You’re too much, boy!’ When I asked him what he thought about masturbation, he gave the same reply, ‘You’re too much, boy!’ He acted as if he’d never heard of it. To most of my questions he’d say, ‘Let’s look into that together.’ I liked that ‘together.’”

Surya Das continued, “Sometimes it seemed his main purpose in life was to ensure that Lama Zopa ate enough food and got some sleep. I went to the classes and helped Lama Yeshe with his English. Then I went to Tatopani and took two trips of purple mescaline.

When I told him about my experiences with it, he said again, ‘You’re too much, boy!’ His view of hallucinogens was that meditation could take you there, and even farther.”

From the teachings of Lama Yeshe:

Q: It seems that to achieve the desired result from meditation, you need a certain kind of environment. What are the implications of this fact for those of us who live in a concrete, noisy, nine-to-five world with little or no contact with others interested in the spiritual path? Do you believe that psychedelics like LSD can be important or useful for people like this?

Lama Yeshe: Well, it’s hard to say. I’ve never taken anything like that. But Buddhist teachings do talk about how material substances affect the human nervous system and the relationship between the nervous system and the mind. We study this kind of thing in Buddhist philosophy. From what I’ve learned, I would say that taking drugs goes against what Buddhism recommends. However, my own point of view is that people who are completely preoccupied with the sense world, who have no idea of the possibilities of mental development, can possibly benefit from the drug experience. How? If people whose reality is limited to the meat and bone of this human body have this experience, perhaps they’ll think, “Wow! I thought this physical world was all there is, but now I can see that it’s possible for my mind to develop beyond the constraints of my flesh-and-blood body.” In some cases the drug experience can open up a person’s mind to the possibility of mental development. But once you’ve had that experience, it’s wrong to keep taking hallucinogens because the drug experience is not real understanding; it’s not a proper realization. The mind is still limited because matter itself is so limited; it’s up and down, up and down. Also, if you take too many drugs you can damage your brain. So, that’s just my personal point of view.”

Lama Yeshe’s thoughts about the Spiritual Teacher

Portrait of Lama Yeshe, 1971From 1971: The First Kopan Meditation Course  by Adele Hulse, Big Love author:

“Q: What is your definition of a guru?

Lama Yeshe: A guru is a person who can really show you the true nature of your mind and who knows the perfect remedies for your psychological problems. Someone who doesn’t know his own mind can never know others’ minds and therefore cannot be a guru. Such a person can never solve other people’s problems. You have to be extremely careful before taking someone on as a guru; there are many impostors around. Westerners are sometimes too trusting. Someone comes along, “I’m a lama, I’m a yogi; I can give you knowledge,” and earnest young Westerners think, “I’m sure he can teach me something. I’m going to follow him.” This can really get you into trouble. I’ve heard of many cases of people being taken in by charlatans. Westerners tend to believe too easily. Eastern people are much more skeptical. Take your time; relax; check up.

Q: Why do we need a teacher?

Lama Yeshe: Why do you need an English teacher? For communication. It’s the same thing with enlightenment. Enlightenment is also communication. Even for mundane activities like shopping we need to learn the language so that we can communicate with the shopkeepers. If we need teachers for that, of course we need someone to guide us along a path that deals with so many unknowns like past and future lives and deep levels of consciousness. These are entirely new experiences; you don’t know where you’re going or what’s happening. You need someone to make sure you’re on the right track and not hallucinating.

Q: How can we recognize the right teacher?

Lama Yeshe: You can recognize your teacher through using your own wisdom and not just following someone blindly. Investigate potential teachers as much as you possibly can. “Is this the right teacher for me or not?” Check deeply before you follow any teacher’s advice. In Tibetan we have an admonition not to take a teacher like a dog seizes a piece of meat. If you give a hungry dog a piece of meat he’ll just gobble it up without hesitation. It is crucial that you examine possible spiritual leaders, teachers, gurus or whatever you call them very, very carefully before accepting their guidance. Remember what I said before about misconceptions and polluted doctrines being more dangerous than drugs? If you follow the misconceptions of a false spiritual guide it can have a disastrous effect on you and cause you to waste not only this life but many others as well. Instead of helping you, it can bring you great harm. Please, be very wise in choosing your spiritual teacher.”

Lama Yeshe’s English Language

Lama Yeshe in the old gompa, 1970From 1970: The First Group Ordination by Adele Hulse, Big Love author:

From the lamas’ perspective, the world of all these Injis was upside down. They had everything but drowned themselves in self-pity and a lack of confidence. It was ironic: Here were two refugees looking after a stream of well-educated middle-class Westerners, all of whom were full of fear, wringing their pale hands. “Don’t preak out!”

Lama Yeshe exhorted. “You can help people, you can do! You should try to help mother sentient beings. You must try! Possible, possible. The mind is so strong. Never underestimate the power of mind.”

The women were particularly disheartened by the lack of female lineage holders in the Tibetan Buddhist lineages. “Well, maybe you can be the first woman lama!” he would tell them. “Pantastic!” Of course, Lama was speaking in an enthusiastically overstated manner; there had already been a number of women lamas throughout Tibetan Buddhist history. Yet on the other hand, to Lama Yeshe, nothing was impossible.

His Western students slowly got used to Lama Yeshe’s language, cherishing his eccentricities. Often one could only work out what he was saying by studying the accompanying gestures and facial expressions. When the meaning became clear, though, it often had a profound effect.

Jampa Laine

Lama Yeshe worked constantly to improve his English and took lessons every Friday afternoon for more than a year from John Laine, an American. Time magazine, the only Western publication regularly available in Nepal, was a valuable source of words and ideas. “Why do Westerners care about that?” Lama Yeshe would ask as they read an article together.

John Laine: “I was very serious. I was reading Evans-Wentz’s books on Tibetan Buddhism and was full of questions.

Lama asked me, ‘Who is Evans-Wentz?’ I explained that he was a very famous scholar. ‘What is a scholar? Has he experienced what he writes about?’ I said I didn’t know, and he replied, ‘Never listen to anyone who has not directly experienced what they are speaking about. People who translate without experience (Lama pronounced this “experewence”) are just pretending wisdom.’ “I asked him to give me a Tibetan name in a private empowerment. ‘You want a full Tibetan initiation and ceremony? What for? Travel souvenir? Okay, next week!’ But he did nothing about it, so I asked again. He gave me a name—Jampa. I asked how to spell it. ‘How do I know? I can’t read or write your language. Find out for yourself!’ Then he sprinkled me with ice cold water and flung rice at me—really hard. I wondered whether he was deliberately mocking the ceremony or just making me pay attention.

“I preferred studying alone and told him that the Wednesday classes bored me to tears. ‘What?’ he shouted, ‘You don’t like class? What do you want? What do you want?’ He was sneering at me. I told him that I just wanted to meditate. Instantly his demeanor changed from furious to placid and he said, ‘Class is for those who think they need class. You meditate!’ When I told him that he seemed more like a wise older brother than a great teacher, he said to me, “’I am not an older brother. I am your son; you are my father.’

“I left Nepal to follow another teacher with Lama’s full blessing. He never discouraged people, but sometimes, when they had wild ideas, he’d say, ‘If you do that, you’ll go berserky!’ Then he’d roll his eyes and stick out his tongue.”

The Inji students, mainly Christians and Jews, often considered it spiritually courageous to reject their religious backgrounds, but Lama Yeshe wasn’t impressed. “Not necessary…it’s the same thing, dear. The main thing is to be kind and happy,” he would say.

Tibetan traditionalism had no appeal for Lama Yeshe either. He still went around in Zina’s polyester roll-neck “New York shirts” (in the wrong colors). She also bought him shoes and a watch. Max bought him socks and underpants. “Look what she’s given me…now she thinks I’m her husband! What am I supposed to do with these? Tibetans don’t wear underpants!”

Some of the Americans around Kopan were shocked at the way Max and Zina fought with each other about who “controlled” the lamas. They repeatedly assured Lama Yeshe that both women were unusual and that he shouldn’t think all Americans were like them. Lama responded that he knew that, that teaching them was an experiment on his part. He figured that if they could practice Dharma, then anyone could. He said that they were both very intelligent women with powerful personalities and could do much to benefit others.

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