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The 8th Kopan Meditation Course

Group photo, Kopan, 1975From 1975: We Need a Foundation by Adele Hulse, Big Love author:

Two hundred people turned up for the eighth course, many of them veterans of several courses already. The more long-term students were increasingly serious about learning to control their minds and stop harming others. Marcel was appointed as the course leader and Jon Landaw was requested to conduct the discussions. “Lama didn’t give me any particular instructions,” said Jon. “He just threw me in there.” Yeshe Khadro, Thubten Pemo, Sangye Khadro, and John Feuille all returned to Kopan from a three-month Manjushri retreat at Lawudo to attend the meditation course.

Adrian Feldmann came to the course from his one-room cabin in the Australian bush where he had been doing solitary retreat. During his retreat he had not seen a single person. “I’d followed Lama Yeshe’s advice and started writing him letters when questions arose, but I never finished one of them. As soon as I started writing the answers just came to me. After the retreat I wrote to Lama and asked when I could become a monk. He told me to come to the course.”

Among the new students attending this course was John Cayton, an American college student. He was one of a group of undergraduates from The Evergreen State College in Washington State, USA, who had come to Nepal to engage in individual research. Most people called him Karuna; he had been given that name by a Hindu guru a few years previously. On his first night at Kopan he dreamed of a lama bowing and smiling at him in greeting. “The next morning I was going to breakfast and I saw this lama walking by, bowing to everyone and smiling. It was Lama Yeshe; he was the one I had seen in my dream. I’d never even seen a photo of him before,” said Karuna.

Andy Weber, who was studying thangka painting in Boudhanath, had met Lama Yeshe in Bodhgaya in 1974. This was his first Kopan course. “I didn’t like the first day—those pretentious Americans with their backpacks and superdown gear and polite palaver. Everyone looked so rich and neat,” Andy remembered. “It was like being at college in the West. The day before the course started I was standing beside the gompa looking down into the valley and wondering whether to stay. I turned around and there was Lama Yeshe’s beaming face at the window. He just nodded to me, but I felt a thud of blessed energy. I knew then that I had to stay. But I thought Marcel was a pain in the neck. Sometimes I just had to go down to Boudha for a chillum.

“I got very depressed during Lama Zopa Rinpoche’s teachings. The only reason I stayed was because Lama Yeshe occasionally dropped in and gave one of his blissful talks, and because he sometimes called me to his room for a chat. His was the message we all wanted to hear. However, we also knew that we first had to walk the path Lama Zopa Rinpoche was pointing out, the same path Lama Yeshe had followed.”

Five friends from the seventh course had spent the year together in Dharamsala and had then returned to Kopan for more. “We were a wild bunch,” said Jimi Neal. Wildest of all was an intense young Italian, Stefano Piovella. “A lot of people at Kopan were very straight. They didn’t like Stefano because he was such a hippie,” said Jimi. “He spent most of the course crashed out in the front row looking totally out of it. Then every now and then he would jump up with the most amazingly profound or poignant questions. He just adored Lama Zopa Rinpoche. He told me that he was amazed at Lama Yeshe’s deep understanding of Italian psychology and culture after he had spent only two weeks in Italy.”

Some months later the somewhat unpredictable but charismatic Stefano was ordained by His Holiness the Karmapa. “Ha ha ha! You! A monk!” everybody exclaimed. “I’m glad you did it,” said Lama. “You’ll last two months.” And he did—to the day. Stefano later took ordination again, and disrobed again.

Jimi Neal was present on the day a student arrived at Kopan on a huge BMW motorbike. “Lama Yeshe might have seen one before but he certainly hadn’t ridden one,” said Jimi. “He got on it, put his hands and feet in the right places, and hunkered down as though the wind was tearing at his face. Marcel Marceau had nothing on him—he was a magnificent actor and a superb mimic.”

One person who didn’t show up for the course was the lamas’ Lake Arrowhead driver Teresa Knowlton, a devout and cheerful young girl from Seattle. Teresa had planned to take ordination and was expected to arrive at Kopan with gardening tools and a typewriter. Time magazine was one of the very few Western publications regularly available in Nepal and Lama Yeshe usually had the latest copy. One day he pointed to a paragraph about an Indian-Vietnamese man, Charles Sobhraj, who had murdered a number of young travelers and stolen their cash and passports, apparently for the sheer excitement of it. Among his victims, found drowned on a beach in Thailand, was Teresa Knowlton. “She wanted to practice Dharma,” said Lama, “but she never reached here.” The message was clear—anything can happen, so use your time well.

More new monks and nuns

Adrian Feldmann was preparing to take robes. His girlfriend was at Kopan and tried to get the lad to spend one last romantic weekend with her at the lovely lakeside town of Pokhara. “I had to check up very deeply,” said Adrian. “I took my girlfriend up to the astrologer’s hill and pointed to the North Star. ‘See that star?’ I said. ‘It never moves and the whole universe moves around it. It is the same as my determination to be a monk.’ She cried a bit and we had one last kiss and cuddle.”

Most of those seeking ordination had already received “Dharma names,” but Adrian hadn’t. He hadn’t even taken the five lay vows that were often given together with refuge. Lama Yeshe gave these vows to Adrian and to Scott Brusso, who also hadn’t yet received all five vows. Then Lama closed his eyes for a moment and gave Adrian the name Thubten Gyatso.

Elisabeth Drukier was on the way to becoming Lama’s first French nun. “I’m not sure about French people,” Lama told her, “I don’t know so many.” George Churinoff went to see Lama Zopa Rinpoche about whether to become ordained. “He told me, ‘For you it would be good.’ So that was that. I thought that becoming a monk was really the only way I could practice Dharma and I had no relationship responsibilities,” said George.

These three—Adrian, Elisabeth, and George—together with several more of Kopan’s Western students, were slated to be ordained by in Dharamsala early in 1976.

In the meantime, however, Lama Yeshe unexpectedly announced on November 17 that a preliminary rabjung ceremony would take place the very next day. This was the third group of Lama Yeshe’s students to request getsul ordination and Lama wanted to ensure that their monastic future was well planned. By receiving the eight barma rabjung vows early they would have some experience of having lived together as Sangha before committing themselves to the thirty-six getsul vows. On that day, George Churinoff, Adrian Feldmann, Elisabeth Drukier, Electric Roger, Karin Valham, Roger Wheeler, Peter Kedge, Scott Brusso, Suzi Albright, and Margaret McAndrew received barma rabjung ordination together. After the ceremony Lama told them, “From now on I am your girlfriend, your boyfriend, your mummy, your daddy, your teacher and your best friend. You have no worries. Now you have a big party!”

“We went down to the Sangha gompa, which was the big room in the old house,” said Adrian. “There was a big table of food and Lama insisted that we sing and dance and play music, all of which are alien practices for ordained people. So we got out the few cassette tapes that we still had, such as the Rolling Stones and Bob Dylan, and drank lemonade and ate biscuits. We didn’t actually sing and dance and Lama didn’t come to the party.”

Lama Yeshe gave several talks to the Sangha about how to live together as a community. He also had them give Dharma talks to each other in the evenings, with question-and-answer sessions, in this way training his monks and nuns to eventually be able to teach in the West.

 

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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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