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Lama’s Domestic Life

Front of photo given to Connie Miller by Lama Yeshe, 1976From 1976: “Heaven is Now!” by Adele Hulse, Big Love author:

It was Thubten Monlam’s job to cook for the lamas when they were at Kopan. When they went on tour he had time to study. “Lama Zopa didn’t care what I served him,” said Thubten Monlam. “He hardly ate anything at all, but if the food was really good he would eat more. He liked to put erma, Sherpa pepper, on everything, but Lama Yeshe never used erma. After his heart tests Lama was much more careful about his food. The Injis were always telling me, “Don’t serve him this, don’t serve him that!”

“Lama liked cooking very much, always chopping things very very fast and saying mantra, “Ommmmmmmmm pham pham pham,” while making a big mess for me to clean up. But he never burned anything. He always cooked for Mummy Max because he knew what she liked. I only knew thukpa, momos, bread, Tibetan tea and khapse. That’s all,” he said. Khapse is fried Tibetan bread—deep-fried yellow dough around the size, shape and texture of a clog shoe—usually made on Tibetan holidays.

“Lama Yeshe never drank Tibetan tea—he didn’t like it at all. But Lama Zopa liked it,” Thubten Monlam continued. “Lama Yeshe liked sweet Indian tea with milk and sugar served separately, like the Injis. I’d put it all on a tray and take it to him in the early morning. He also ate bread then and sometimes an egg. Sometimes he ate in his room, but most times he ate out on the patio roof with the little dogs.”

The custom of taking tea is as much a feature of Tibetan as it is of English culture and connoisseurs are sensitive to its quality. Over an afternoon cup with one of his Western monks Lama asked him what he thought of its quality. On being assured it was much better than the tea in the IMI’s storeroom, Lama replied, “I sure hope so!’ Over time Lama Yeshe developed a taste for Twinings Lapsang Souchong, which he called “Losang Chonjur” (coincidentally the name of Jan Willis’s friend from Samten Ling), or if that was not available, Earl Grey, pronounced “Er Gay.”

When Thubten Monlam was not in sight, Lama called out for tea in the old Tibetan style, with a gruff, “Eugh!” If the boy still didn’t come, Rinpoche would creep from his room, humble as a sweeper, to make Lama’s tea himself.

Besides cooking for the lamas it was Thubten Monlam’s job to clean their rooms and make up Lama Yeshe’s bed every night. “But Lama Yeshe often sat on his bed talking to students until midnight,” he explained. “Sometimes I’d fall asleep at the door waiting for him to finish and sometimes he forgot all about me. I’d try to make the bed early, when he was not sitting on it. Lama was kind to me—he gave me cookies and presents and invited me to work at Tushita in Dharamsala.

“I never saw Lama Zopa go to bed, but I did see him lie down in his robes three or four times in the middle of the day. I think he was checking dreams or something. He was always up very late at night. When I’d come into his room, he’d be drowsy and give a start, then he’d say, “Om mani padmé hum,” and go back to saying mantras.

“Lama Yeshe would go to bed really late at night and sleep late in the morning, sometimes up to nine or ten o’clock. When he’d sleep late I was afraid something had happened to him, but I would never go in and wake him. I’d just wait until he woke up by himself. Lama took a nap every afternoon because the doctor said he needed rest for his heart. Often it seemed like he was sleeping then, but he was not. He knew what was going on. He was very sensitive and woke up very easily in the afternoons.”

That was the conventional explanation for Lama’s traditional afternoon rest—his weak heart. “Rinpoche’s explanation was that Lama was a tantric master whose afternoon sleep was in fact the most profound Hayagriva dream yoga practice,” said Peter Kedge. “I didn’t like to disturb Lama from those afternoon rests, though several times I did have to wake him up. Although he did wake easily, he seemed to come back from some very far away place.

“Actually, Lama’s afternoon rests were the greatest break for me when I began touring with the lamas. There was incredible pressure when Lama was around and always so much activity, so when Rinpoche was meditating in his room and Lama was having his afternoon rest in another, it was almost like putting the kids to bed and being able to relax a little.”

By nature a night owl, one night Nick Ribush floated into Lama Yeshe’s room around 11:00 pm, confident as ever, to ask a question about some administrative matter. Lama flew at him, demanding, “Why are you coming at this time! You think I don’t need time? You’ve got no consideration!” On the other hand, when Jimi Neal went to him late one night with a list of Dharma questions, he was welcomed. “I didn’t even get the chance to produce my list,” said Jimi. “Without even seeing it Lama just went through each question I’d written down, one after the other in the same order as I’d written them. When he finished we talked about other things.”

On Lama Yeshe’s altar was a photo of a famous statue commonly known as the fasting Buddha. Tibetans generally didn’t seem to have much affinity with this particular image of the Buddha, so it was quite uncommon among them to use this image as an object of devotion on a personal altar. Lama Yeshe would sometimes describe to his students how other Tibetan monks and lamas teased him about it, saying, “What is that? Why do you have that on your altar?” Peter Kedge recalled Lama telling him he found the image very inspiring, “explaining that the Buddha’s spine was visible from the front and how that signified such incredible determination and effort.”

This specific representation is actually of Siddhartha Gautama before his enlightenment, during the six years of his life when he was engaged in ascetic practices under the guidance of a Hindu guru. He became extremely emaciated and weak until one day he concluded that asceticism was not the true path to liberation from suffering. Close to death, Siddhartha was found next to the Nairanjana River by a local girl who brought him a bowl of milk and rice, which he ate. His strength restored, Siddhartha then sat under the Bodhi tree, determined to discover the true nature of reality, which he did, thereby achieving enlightenment.

Lama Yeshe regularly went down to Kathmandu on business, or to spend time with Jampa Trinley and his family. He often invited Yangsi Rinpoche’s sister Tseyang (known as Tsen-la) a school girl at the time, to come and stay at Kopan during her school holidays. “Lama looked after her very carefully,” said Peter Kedge. “In retrospect he was preparing her to be the nun she later became. Lama paid a lot of attention to Jampa Trinley’s family. When Tsen-la’s older brother fell very ill, Lama visited him several times and showed tremendous concern.”

The Western Sangha, conspicuous in their red robes and shaven pink heads, were also seen all over town. Lay students at Kopan often gathered for picnics in the forest bordering the Bagmati River opposite Pashupatinath, an important Hindu temple, from where one could just see its famous Golden Cow statue. Entry to the temple was known to be strictly limited to Hindus. One day an older Kopan student stood outside Pashupatinath explaining this to a group of visitors when suddenly Lama Yeshe walked out of the temple holding the hand of a small Mount Everest Centre monk. Both had red Hindu tika1 marks on their foreheads.

Hayagriva: An enlightened meditational deity who is an embodiment of wrathful compassion.

The fasting Buddha: This statue of the fasting Buddha (second century a.d.) resides in the Lahore Museum in Lahore, Pakistan. It dates from the Gandharan period of South Asian art during the time that Buddhism flourished in the area we now know as Afghanistan and Pakistan. It is said that the anatomical accuracy of the statue reflects the Hellenic influence of the Greeks under Alexander the Great who conquered this area in the fourth century B.C.

Tika: Hindu devotees place a red tika mark at the center of their brows to symbolize attaining the “third eye” of enlightenment. 

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The birth of Wisdom Publications

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

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

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

 

Statues and Images

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

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

 

 

Mahakala, the IMI protector

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

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

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

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

 

“We Need a Foundation”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

 

The 8th Kopan Meditation Course

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

More new monks and nuns

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Les Bayards, Switzerland

1975 Geshe Rabten in SwitzerlandFrom 1975: We Need a Foundation by Adele Hulse, Big Love author:

On September 24, three days after the seminar at Royal Holloway in Surrey, England, the lamas and Nick flew from London to Geneva. Chris and Barbara Vautier, two of the organizers of the upcoming two-week course, met them at the airport and drove them to the picture-postcard village of Les Bayards in the Jura, a canton in northwest Switzerland. The lamas had been invited to Switzerland by the Vautiers and Jamie and Isabelle Johnston. The Vautiers had rented Les Places, a beautiful spic-and-span house, for the lamas in the countryside about twenty minutes from Les Bayards.

Chris and Barbara, who had attended the third Kopan course in 1972, were interested in establishing a center in Switzerland, which already had a strong Tibetan community. Geshe Rabten, attended by Gonsar Rinpoche, had arrived there in 1974 to take up a three-year post as abbot of the Tibet Institute in Rikon, Switzerland. In view of this Lama Yeshe told Peter Kedge that he could not possibly consider opening a center in Switzerland, as that would have been arrogant and extremely disrespectful to Geshe Rabten.

The day after they arrived in Switzerland the lamas went to visit Geshe Rabten at the Tibet Institute, and then all together they went to visit Kyabjé Trijang Rinpoche who was staying close by. During this visit, Lama Yeshe asked Trijang Rinpoche to record some advice for the 120 students at Les Bayards on a cassette tape.

Åge Delbanco, who had not seen the lamas for two years, came to cook for them. “I drove them back and forth to the teachings,” he said. “Whenever we arrived for the teachings or left afterward, students would run out to surround the car. Bent over in devotion they all rushed to be the one to open the car door. Once Lama Yeshe exclaimed, ‘Ho! This guru business!’ as if to say, ‘Why can’t they just relax and be natural?’ Lama was so sweet to me then, but he treated Lama Zopa like he was a little boy. There was a lot of, ‘What are you doing! Do this! Do that!’”

Kopan students from all over Europe were thrilled to meet each other again. “For many of us it was the first time we had seen the lamas and each other for years and it presaged great things to come. After this, new centers began opening all over the continent,” said Paula de Wys. In charge of the kitchen during the course was Patricia Zenn Calaman, who would later come to be known as Bhikshuni Professor Karma Lekshe Tsomo and would become one of the founders of Sakyadita, the International Association of Buddhist Women.

The students took the eight Mahayana precepts every morning during the second week of the course. This was challenging, so Lama Yeshe came along to give everyone courage:

Good morning. We are here to engage in this exercise, to concentrate on our own beliefs. Perhaps I will explain a little why we do this.

It is very simple. We have tremendous energy from our previous experiences, both physical and mental. We are influenced too much by this uncontrolled energy. So when we try to engage in actions that put our energy in the right direction, we need to relieve that garbage energy that has been uncontrollably occupying our minds for so long. In order to actualize the Hinayana path, the Paramitayana path, or even the Tantrayana path, it is necessary to eliminate that uncontrolled negative energy that we are all too familiar with.

But we cannot do this merely intellectually. This is like feeling hungry but then denying that you have a stomach! You understand? You cannot just say, “I want to stop,” (clap) and expect it to happen. You have to understand that your mind is like a baby. You have to concentrate this positive energy into your own movement reality, your own coming and going, so that the mind automatically integrates one-pointedly and stops the mundane worldly thoughts.

Lama always said he never rehearsed his talks and never knew what he was going to say until he sat on the throne.

As the attendant Nick was in charge of all the mundane matters, such as seeing that everything ran to schedule, especially lunch. On the days when everyone took precepts, lunch was the only meal of the day and it was supposed to be over by noon. Lama often lectured in the morning on those days, and his lectures often went overtime. With five minutes to spare, Nick would discreetly remind Lama of the time. Twenty minutes later he often had to do so again, because Lama had taken no notice. One day, after Nick’s third interruption, Lama Yeshe rounded on him and said, “In Tibet when someone is being a nuisance, we do this to them!” He made a squishing gesture with his thumb. Nick stayed quiet. “When the lecture was finally over I followed Lama down the stairs,” said Nick. “My mind was just about to boil over when Lama turned, gave me a look full of real fear for my future lives and said, ‘Don’t say a thing!’ Then he walked off.” Displaying anger toward one’s guru creates very bad karma.

As promised, Judy Weitzner turned up to discuss Lama’s plans for a Tibetan organization. Later, she remembered talking with Lama about the project. “At one point I said, ‘Why stop at “International Society” for Tibetan Reality? Why not intergalactic?’ Lama thought that was a great idea. He also said he wanted to establish universities in Tibet, where scholars from all over the world could come and teach Dharma to the Tibetans. They were the ones who were missing out now,” said Judy.

Adele Hulse also attended the Swiss course. “I followed the tour down to Les Bayards and was the only other Australian there besides Nick,” recalled Adele. “Every evening there were discussions conducted in several language groups. I would walk around from group to group, not quite belonging. I saw that the French all spoke at once, the Germans made lists of words, the English were super polite and said nothing, and the Italians were extremely emotional. I thought it very funny.

“Nick invited me to come over to the lamas’ house and clean up in readiness for a short visit from Geshe Rabten. Naturally, I was thrilled. The house had been squeaky Swiss clean before the lamas moved in, but now it was untidy and the kitchen was a mess. There were splotches and burn marks on practically every surface.

“The lamas had just finished cooking a mountain of momos for Geshe Rabten and I was washing up, my hands in the sink. I didn’t notice Lama Yeshe come up behind me until I suddenly felt this massive thump, square in the middle of my back. I was stunned. It was obviously a precise strike and delivered in neither fun nor anger. In my straightforward Australian way I turned to look at him. His eyes were rolled right back in his head, his hands folded and he just kept saying, ‘Thank you, dear, thank you, dear.’ I didn’t understand at all and just went on with the dishes.

“That day Lama asked me, ‘Why do you stay in London for so long, such a dirty place? Why don’t you go back to Australia? A clean place and such good food. See your mummy.’ Soon afterward I left Switzerland knowing that my time on the road was up.”

Two days before the end of the course Lama Yeshe gave a public talk at nearby Chaux-de-Fonds. On the last day of the course Geshe Rabten gave a talk and Zopa Rinpoche gave a Tara initiation. Lama Yeshe also gave a Chenrezig initiation and played Kyabjé Trijang Rinpoche’s recorded advice to the students, which was translated by the American monk, Alan Wallace.

The Indiana Course

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

From California the lamas returned to Louie-Bob Wood’s Bodhicitta Center in Indiana, Max and Wongmo accompanying them. They were scheduled to give a two-week course there starting on July 24. Louie-Bob had rented a venue this time and once again many of those attending were older people—mostly devout Christians. Definitely not hippies. In addition to the local attendees, however, there were also about twenty people in attendance who had already received teachings from the lamas. While in California, Lama Zopa Rinpoche had dictated the Yoga Meditation of Chenrezig Compassionate Wisdom to Wongmo, who had then arranged to have it printed in time for a Chenrezig initiation that Lama gave to eighty-five people at the end of the course. Rinpoche had signed the booklet “Zopa—Lama in name only.”

During the question-and-answer time a woman asked Lama if Buddha’s ultimate nature was the same as God. Lama paused in deep contemplation for a long minute before clearly replying, “Yes.” As most of those attending this course were Christians, Lama spoke often about Jesus and his qualities and even had them visualizing Jesus instead of Buddha. Two hundred people attended Lama Yeshe’s public talk at the Brown County Art Gallery on the second night of the course. At the end of the course Lama gave refuge to forty people and lay vows to thirty.

Lama told all the people who wanted to do further study to visit Geshe Sopa in Madison, Wisconsin. Several of them went directly there and became dedicated students of Lama’s long-time teacher.

Max Mathews stayed on the tour for the duration of her school holiday leave. In Nashville, Indiana, she spent time working on an innovative education project that Lama had discussed with her. Lama had told her that he believed Buddhism could be taught all around the world without using any Buddhist terms at all, and in such a way that children could learn that life is impermanent, all things are interrelated, and the path to life’s fulfillment involves exercising compassion and wisdom and applying appropriate methods. Max thought that the first thing to do was to prepare texts in order to be able to train teachers. She wrote out a program, developed concepts, and had long discussions with Lama. News of her work elicited offers from two American universities to complete a Ph.D. in educational research, but she did not accept. When the lamas left for Wisconsin, Max returned to Nepal and her job at Lincoln School. She was still the only source of support for more than fifty young Mount Everest Centre monks.

 

In Wisconsin with Geshe Sopa

Several days into the Indiana course, on July 29, because of difficulties with his health due to the Indiana summer heat, Lama Yeshe cancelled the upcoming course in New York that had been organized by Roger Jackson and Pam Percy with help from Nicole Couture. “He was obviously not well,” said Pam. “He paused every now and then as some pain passed through him, but he was more concerned about us. He wouldn’t let us leave until we were quite clear of his reasons for cancelling the New York course. He kept asking us to take care of each other.”

The upside of this was that it gave the lamas more time to spend with their precious teacher, Geshe Sopa. They traveled to Madison, Wisconsin, directly from Indiana, spending the next month there receiving teachings from Geshe Sopa on the The Great Treatise on the Stages of the Path to Enlightenment (Lam-rim Chenmo). It was also a time for Lama Yeshe to take a break from his grueling schedule and escape from the heat that oppressed him so. Because Geshe Sopa’s house was right next to the lake, it was more comfortable in summer than much of the rest of the area.

Khamlung Rinpoche, whose house was just down the road from Geshe Sopa’s, hadn’t seen Thubten Yeshe since that dreadful day at Sera in March 1959. Here in the United States the Tibetans spent long pleasant evenings dining together, Lama Yeshe doing some of the cooking. Geshe Sopa was teachings only one weekly class at the time so he had free time to spend with his old student. Meanwhile, Nick embarked on series of long bus and plane rides to Chicago, Boston, Toronto, and Gainesville, Florida, giving talks on Buddhism to raise funds for the IMI before returning to Madison.

* * *

Allyn Roberts was a psychologist and the director of one of Wisconsin’s first private clinics. In 1972 his friend, Geshe Sopa, had asked him to deliver a message to Lama Yeshe while he was traveling in India. He had been warmly welcomed by Lama and the two had enjoyed many enthusiastic conversations about the overlap of Buddhism and Western psychology in relieving suffering. They had agreed that each discipline needed to learn from and be complemented by the other. Lama asked Allyn to send him some suitable books written by Western psychologists, which he had done. Lama even suggested that they swap roles for a few months. These conversations had taken place even before the term “transpersonal psychology” entered the common vernacular and at a time when Western psychological traditions rarely focused on spiritual dimensions in their pursuit of wholeness.

Allyn had heard that after spending time at Kopan many young drug addicts had been able to kick their addiction, while in contrast, clinical approaches were having only limited success. He wanted to know how they did it. “That’s easy,” Lama Yeshe had told him. “They are hungry for nourishing food. I feed them and then it is easier for them to forgo the non-nourishing food.”

Now that Lama was visiting Madison, Geshe Sopa called Allyn saying that Lama wanted to come and see him. “Geshe-la wanted Lama to see the silo that was attached to my home, on top of which I had built a glass-walled viewing room,” Allyn recalled. “Lama arrived and darted up the inner staircase leading to the room. Geshe-la was anxious because he knew of Lama’s heart condition. Halfway up he looked back at Geshe-la and me in a laughing and mischievous way. ‘I’m fine!’ Lama said. We followed at a much less vigorous pace. In the viewing room Lama was absolutely overjoyed. He said, ‘This gives me an idea. We should build a statue of the Buddha like this, with an inner staircase surrounded by Buddhist and spiritual art objects.’ He said that our energy and spirits were raised in the process of climbing up and that most people needed some kind of physical experience. People would take with them memories and images that would assist their spiritual growth.”

Some of Lama Yeshe’s students had written to Geshe Sopa in hopes that he could persuade Lama to undergo the heart valve replacement recommended by several cardiologists. They had also written to Kyabjé Trijang Rinpoche about it. However, Trijang Rinpoche told Lama that his divinations had advised against having any operation at all. Nevertheless Lama, now forty years old, went back to the university hospital for more tests.

While he was at the hospital, a vending machine there attracted his attention. “So beautiful. Just like karma. You select something, put a coin in, and the result appears,” he said.

The upshot of this visit was that Lama agreed to be admitted for two days to have a cardiac catheterization. It was noted in the hospital documents that his date of birth (invented by Mummy Max for Lama’s travel documents) was 21 May 1935 and that he was 5′ 3″ tall and weighed 155 pounds. The procedure was performed under a local anesthetic on 10 September 1975. “They took me to that chopping place and put me on a chopping table. They showed me on TV; I could watch like a movie!” said Lama afterward. He had not been at all nervous and had cheerfully joked all the way through the procedure. The doctors were impressed.

Before leaving Geshe Sopa’s house for the hospital Lama Yeshe had given his teacher an envelope containing some money and his will. “It seemed he had already decided that it didn’t matter if he died during the operation. Of course, once you decide that, there is no problem,” said Geshe Sopa.

Dr. Nick attended the post-examination medical conference. “The doctors couldn’t understand how Lama could travel and be so active with his heart in such poor condition. One of them pointed out that he was a Buddhist monk and probably led a very sedentary life, so I was prompted to tell them how just last year he had scooted up the hill at Lawudo, which is at 14,000 feet. I’m not sure they believed me, however. A monk wasn’t going to have the same credibility as a doctor. And a doctor-monk, well… Whenever any of us students asked Lama how he coped with his heart, he always said it was the power of mantras. I didn’t tell them that.”

Geshe Sopa also attended this conference. “The doctor was very frank. He insisted that it was better to do the operation now; otherwise, if we were to wait then [his heart] would deteriorate and it could be very dangerous. Right then it was not so dangerous. I pushed him to say how long he thought that Lama could live without an operation. He said eight years,” said Geshe Sopa. But later, Lama repeated Trijang Rinpoche’s advice not to have the surgery. “If we followed the doctors, then I would already be dead; several doctors said that I should be dead. I don’t want to do that operation now. Maybe later I can come back. I’ve stayed alive a lot longer than anyone thought I could and I have so much to do. I can’t afford the recovery time that an operation would take.”

Lama’s friend Chombey also recalled discussing the matter with him. “Lama said Trijang Rinpoche told him not to have it, because it wouldn’t make any big difference. The operation would not prolong his life and not having it would not shorten his life either. But Trijang Rinpoche also made a promise to Lama. He told him, ‘As long as I live, you will be taken care of. Nothing will happen to you. I can’t do much in spreading the Dharma around and you are doing all that work. I’ll look after you while I live.’ That’s what he told Lama,” said Chombey.

The Lake Arrowhead Course

Lama Yeshe, Lake Arrowhead, 1975From 1975: We Need a Foundation by Adele Hulse, Big Love author:

When they finally arrived in Los Angeles on June 23, Lama and Max were met by Thubten Wongmo and a photographer friend, Carol Royce-Wilder. Carol had arranged for them to stay in her relatives’ big ranch-style house in Tarzana, where they could relax between public lectures. “Lama fit right in,” said Carol. “He called my relatives his ‘American family’ and ended up changing their lives.” Lama loved the big clean house, especially the beautiful bathrooms.

Thubten Wongmo, previously Feather Meston, had arrived five months earlier to stay with her grandmother in Beverly Hills where she had grown up. Her father had created and written the TV series Gunsmoke, so the Los Angeles Times did a story on the Hollywood kid turned Buddhist nun. Wongmo brought her beloved grandmother, Bernardine Szold Fritz, to meet Lama Yeshe. “He jumped up from his seat, took her arm and walked her around the house. Her face was ecstatic,” said Wongmo. “I had never seen anyone being so loving and gentle with her.”

John Schwartz, a Los Angeles filmmaker, scriptwriter and producer, had seen the newspaper story on Wongmo and gotten in touch. When Lama wanted to visit a shopping mall, Wongmo and John Schwartz obliged. “He was buying all this stuff for the boys at Kopan,” said John. “But it was almost closing time and the staff was asking people to leave. He went out the big glass doors and held them open for the next person, and the next and the next, smiling at them all and saying, ‘Thank you!’ They looked at him and laughed. Wongmo had shown me a photo of Lama Yeshe before I met him, and I got rushes of energy from it. I didn’t know what was happening to me.”

Lama rested and relaxed for several days. On June 28, he gave a public lecture following a film showing at the University Religious Conference in Los Angeles to an audience of 250. The next day, the same program was repeated at Plummer Park, Fiesta Hall, to a similarly sized audience. Thubten Wongmo had organized these public lectures in order to encourage more people to attend the upcoming meditation course, as registration seemed to be below what the organizers had expected.

On Sunday, June 29, John and Wongmo went out to the airport to collect Lama Zopa Rinpoche and Nick. “I couldn’t believe the suitcases; they were the heaviest I had ever lifted,” said John. They were filled with Tibetan texts, all texts.

The lamas were to teach at Camp Arrowpines on Lake Arrowhead, east of Los Angeles. John Schwartz arranged for them to stay in a house belonging to his friend Michael Wayne, son of the famous actor John Wayne. Chuck Thomas, who had been to Kopan and who had helped care for the lamas in Wisconsin during the previous year, was appointed to be the lamas’ attendant; Teresa Knowlton, who had attended the fourth and sixth Kopan courses, was their driver.

A three-week course had been organized, with an official “early finish” after the first two weeks for those who could not attend the entire course. One hundred people attended the first two weeks; sixty remained for the third week. During the first two weeks of this retreat-style course, Rinpoche covered the basic lam-rim teachings, but during the last week, coming for only one session a day, he focused his teaching exclusively on the complex topic of emptiness. Lama Yeshe taught much more than usual during this course, and even gave private interviews to practically every student in attendance. It was also here that Lama introduced the tantric “seed-syllable meditation” for the first time to his students. In fact, either Nick or Wongmo led everyone in the seed-syllable meditation every morning from the very start of the course. As well, everyone took the eight Mahayana precepts each morning before dawn for the last two weeks of the course. Lama Yeshe actually gave refuge twice—at the early finish, two weeks into the course, to thirteen people, and at the course end on July 19 to thirty-eight students. On that day he also gave lay precepts to twenty. On July 20 sixty students received a Chenrezig initiation from Lama Yeshe.

In the Tibetan pantheon each deity (or personification of particular aspects of the enlightened mind) has an associated mantra—Sanskrit words packed with meaning. In reply to a question about mantra Lama Yeshe responded that while the common misconception was that reciting mantras is an external and unnatural exercise (rather than an internal and spontaneous occurrence), mantra transcends external sounds and words. “It is more like listening to a subtle inner sound that has always inhabited your nervous system,” he said.

 

Lama Yeshe on mantra:

The existence of inner sound cannot be denied. Our nervous system has its own specific inner sound. This is not something that Mahayanists have invented; it is an objective reality that exists within us. For example, the sound ah exists within us from the moment of birth. All speech sounds are derived from ah. Without ah there could be no other sound.

Mantra becomes more powerful when imparted by a qualified teacher who has deep inner experience of the mantra. A good teacher creates a situation that heightens our receptivity to the wisdom transmitted by the mantra.

Mantra is energy. It is always pure, and cannot be contaminated by negative thought processes. As mantra is not gross energy, it cannot be corrupted the way sensory phenomena are corrupted by our own minds. Those endowed with skilful wisdom will naturally attain realizations through the power of mantra. Practitioners of mantra yoga will discover that their inner sound becomes completely one with the mantra itself. Then even their normal speech become mantra. 

 

Seed syllables are a further reduction of such mantras into one intensely meaningful syllable. For example, Tara’s mantra is om taré tuttaré turé soha and her seed syllable is tam. Such seed syllables are usually visualized in written form (in either Western or Tibetan script) at the place of the chakras, or subtle energy centers, in the body. Seed syllables are all topped with three subtle cyphers: a crescent, a dot and a tiny flame. One practices visualizing the letters absorbing from the bottom to the top, through the two lower cyphers and into the tiny flame, which then dissolves into emptiness.

The seed-syllable meditation that Lama Yeshe taught to his students isa simple variation of the tummo (inner heat) meditation and an illustration of the mechanics of tantric practice, a huge field of study. Teaching such a practice to new students was a radical thing to do. It was a measure of Lama Yeshe’s extraordinary confidence in his students that he did so.

The basic visualization instructions for what Lama Yeshe called the “seed-syllable meditation” are almost identical to those of the vase breathing meditation described in the previous chapter, the only exception being that just above the mystic point below the navel where the three psychic channels join together, one visualizes inside that juncture a tiny red seed-syllable like a red-hot glowing ember. The idea is to generate heat from this “ember”—the inner psychic heat called tummo. As one practices vase breathing, the concentration of breath around the small flame in the shushumna, or central channel, brings energy to that point, causing the ember to glow hotter and hotter. This heat is then used to melt the psychic energy contained in the various chakras in the body, thereby generating great bliss throughout the body and mind. One uses this great bliss to cultivate deep concentration and as a powerful tool to further one’s understanding of non-duality, or emptiness.

Practicing the seed-syllable meditation brings one into contact with the inner psychic nervous system, the basis of tantric practice. It was most unusual for such a practice to be taught openly, especially to new Western students. But Lama Yeshe did just that.

“Lama hadn’t even taught the seed-syllable meditation to the Sangha yet, but he knew the American attitude was, ‘Show me! Prove it!’” said John Schwartz. “Lama Zopa had us all dissolving our bodies on our pillows, melting down all the atoms until there was nothing left. He told us how to ‘see’ the atoms in the wall and to put our finger through it. He described all this in such incredible detail that everyone was just blown away.”

Lama Yeshe usually kept out of sight during courses taught by Rinpoche, but in this instance the American students were becoming so emotional that he came every second night just to calm them down.

Carol Fields had come down from Berkeley, but she wasn’t having much fun. “I couldn’t eat and got only about four hours’ sleep a night. I had to leave the course early and so Lama gave refuge to me and another student together. I was filled with tenderness for everybody for about six months,” said Carol.

Carol Royce-Wilder took dozens of wonderful photos of the lamas teaching. One day, seemingly inconsolable and feeling desperately depressed, she burst in on Lama, sobbing hysterically. His eyes widened and he looked very concerned. “I just blubbered out of control, a real spectacle,” Carol recalled. “‘What is it, dear?’ he asked, taking my hands in his and drawing me close to him. Looking around he found flowers someone had given him and said, ‘Here, dear, these are for you.’

“I said, ‘No, no, Lama, it’s me who should be offering them to you!’ He handed me some fruit and said to take it, too. ‘No, Lama, you don’t understand; nothing helps. Not fruit, not flowers, it’s useless! I’m totally isolated and alone. I can’t feel anything. I’m dead. Nothing means anything to me, not even you, Lama!’ I shrieked and sobbed. He said, ‘Not even me? Impossible, impossible!’ Then he opened his eyes very wide and drew my eyes to his and what felt like my whole being went…somewhere. I don’t have the words to describe what happened. I felt like he took me into the deepest recesses of his being and I saw, I knew, that there was nothing there. Absolutely nothing at all. There was just an empty silence, a black hole. There was simply no person called ‘Lama’ inside. It was awesome. In that moment I realized that the friendly smiling personable Lama Yeshe I knew was a figment, a persona he’d created solely for our benefit, that behind the charismatic exterior lay unbounded empty space. Lama had allowed me to catch a glimpse of that for one brief but eternal moment. When I emerged from this indescribable experience he said, ‘Well, dear, we’ll talk again. Now you go back to the course.’ Later, I took the lamas to see the movie Earthquake. I was terrified. ‘It’s only a movie, dear,’ said Lama.”

Radmila Moacanin was struck by how similar the teachings were to those of Carl Jung. “When I told Lama I couldn’t recall past lives, he said that if one goes further and further back one slowly remembers them,” Radmila recounted. “One night he demonstrated attachment to one person by squeezing me so hard I couldn’t help but make the face of someone whose freedom has been removed. ‘You see?’ he said.”

Lama Yeshe had private interviews with almost everyone who attended the course. Later, he remarked that every female who came to see him had promptly burst into tears. One evening he sat with five women—Thubten Wongmo, Pam Cowan, Lois Greenwood, Merideth Hasson, Lynda Millspaugh—and two men—Nick Ribush and Dick Robinson—and discussed the possibility of holding a special course for women. They deliberated at length about what to call it. Clearly it had to be differentiated from the politically motivated women’s movement. Every time the words “women’s liberation” were mentioned in America, a dozen conflicting voices rose in clamor. “Women’s Meditation Course for Inner Development” was their best shot. The males present said that there should also be a special course for men. Lama Yeshe agreed, but for him teaching women how to use their energy appeared to be a priority. Some of Lama Yeshe’s comments during that conversation:

 

Women have a particular mind. Women have particular conceptions regarding the meaning of “man” and “woman” in the world and from these come specific notions about how to deal with men. These ideas, “woman means this,” “man means that,” are the source of so many problems between the sexes. These ideas obscure a true knowledge of the reality of female energy, the reality of male energy, and how they truly function. This knowledge brings a remarkable emotional release. This freedom from such emotionally fixed ideas makes it possible for a woman to relate better to herself, her own energy, free of misconceptions and misinterpretations. Since the beginning of this earth until now both women’s and men’s usual interpretations of “woman” has been absolutely wrong, on both sides. Therefore relationships between men and women have been wrong all along because such relationships are not actually found in the interpretations.

In reality, men can do and women can do. But men generally think that they run the world and so they create a hallucinated painting of reality like this. And women believe it too. Because men think they run the world, they also think that women are nothing. And women believe them. Many women think that men will lead and they can just, you know, help! That’s all. But that’s not true. Not at all. Without women in the world, men would go crazy, absolutely crazy. Women need to understand this. Without the support of women, ordinary men would be almost nonexistent, unable to have a life. Of course, here I’m speaking relatively.

This is why…I think female energy is very interesting. Understanding female energy can give women more strength and help them to become independent and free. You understand what I mean? It can actually completely release that feeling of insecurity that can come when a woman feels that she can’t have a life unless she has a man to lead her life for her. Many women carry, I think, misconceptions about themselves that contribute to a sense of weakness. This definitely doesn’t serve their liberation. These misconceptions are only words, you know. But because they believe they are in a weak position, then they don’t believe in the reality of their positive strength. So I think that to organize this course would be very worthwhile.

 

In the end, this special course for women never happened.

There were many discussions during the Lake Arrowhead course about establishing a center in California. After dinner one night Lama Yeshe sketched out a plan on a paper napkin and spoke to the students about his vision of what the land might look like: about 250 acres with a hill in the middle. The gompa was situated at the top of the hill with the Sangha living close by. At the base of the hill lived the lay community, with a school, gardens, craft shops—everything necessary for community life. He even gave the center its name: Vajrapani Institute for Wisdom Culture.

This center was first located in the Venice, California, home of Dick Robinson, Vajrapani’s first director, and his wife Merideth Hasson. The couple, together with Sharon and Louie Gross, all four Kopan students, later moved to Santa Barbara in southern California, where they shared a house designated as the new Vajrapani Institute location. They invited Dharma teachers and organized courses and evening meditation sessions, all for the purpose of furthering the development of Vajrapani Institute. Chuck Thomas was there to help, and John and Elaine Jackson, who would become important Vajrapani members in the future, first encountered the Dharma during those months in Santa Barbara. The Santa Barbara Vajrapani house only lasted about six months, however, after which Dick and Merideth returned to Venice and Sharon and Louie returned to Berkeley, where they all continued to organize Dharma activities under the name of Vajrapani.

The Dromana Course

Lama adjusts his robe, 1975From 1975: We Need a Foundation by Adele Hulse, Big Love author:

Lama Yeshe’s students in Melbourne booked a facility in the bayside town of Dromana, on the Mornington Peninsula. Eighty-five people attended a five-day course there over Easter, with Nick teaching the “lower realms and suffering” part in Rinpoche’s absence. It was a sophisticated crowd including many friends of people who had been to Kopan and who were wondering what on earth their mates had gotten themselves into. Lama Yeshe was ready for them.

 

From Lama Yeshe’s teachings at Dromana, Australia:

Not only are you people mentally strong, you are also skeptical. That’s good. Lord Buddha’s teaching is skeptical too. This meeting of skeptics is excellent. Do you understand what I mean by skeptical? I mean you don’t easily believe or accept anything. You check and experiment to see if something works or not. If it doesn’t, you keep checking, checking, checking, using your brain, your wisdom. In that way you grow. This is all part of the path of inner freedom, liberation and enlightenment. Just believing what someone tells you emotionally, without understanding, has nothing to do with any religion. Even though you might pretend: “I’m a such and such”, it’s just a label and still an ego trip.

The two departments of ego and attachment work together in your mind and as long as they do, whatever sense pleasure you enjoy, wherever you go, whatever friends you have, nothing lasts. Your ego makes a wrong projection on an object and your attachment follows without hesitation and gets completely stuck on, or tied to, that object. This splits and severely agitates your mind.

I’m sure you can philosophize intellectually that things are impermanent, but if you check more deeply into how your ego interprets objects, what it projects onto them, you will find that it’s expecting them to last and perceiving them as permanent.

When two people get married their ego’s interpretation is that they should be together forever in life, and even in death. This is so exaggerated. It’s impossible for people to make that decision. It’s not up to them, it’s up to karma. Uncontrollably, karmic energy makes the decision whether one partner lives and the other dies. When one finally does, the other misses him or her so badly and suffers enormously.

All that worry and weeping, missing and memory comes from the two mental departments of ego and attachment. Not understanding the impermanent nature of phenomena, and expecting to live happily ever after as interpreted by ego and attachment, brings the reaction of misery. That is a karmic result or effect. If you understand impermanent nature there’s no upset, miserable reaction. You accept death as a natural thing. In fact, you expect it to happen. With understanding there’s no worry. You know separation is natural.

Therefore, instead of blindly following the grasping and attachment that result from the way your ego interprets things, it’s better to renounce. Perhaps you think that when I tell you to renounce, I mean that you should get rid of all your possessions. But true renunciation isn’t physical, it’s mental. It doesn’t refer to what things are worth monetarily, but to how your mind views them. Your mind makes things seem very important because it does not see their reality and overestimates their nature.

When you know that phenomena are changeable, transitory and impermanent by nature, you expect things to disappear. Of course, everyone knows this intellectually, but when you meditate on the sensations of your body and mind you experience their automatically changing nature. That’s not intellectual philosophy, but your own personal experience. Other objects, such as your family, friends, material possessions or whatever else may be your biggest object of attachment, are the same in nature. Everything is transitory and momentary. Nothing lasts. We cling to these things because we think they are helpful, but try to ascertain whether they really help or harm your mind. Perhaps, instead of inducing peace they disturb your peace of mind. You check up.

 

A camper trailer—what the British call a “caravan”—had been rented for Lama and it was there that Adrian Feldmann had his first private interview with Lama Yeshe. “I sat down beside him on the bed and told him that I had taken refuge and wanted my life to be as close to the Dharma as possible. I saw two ways of doing that. One was to become a monk; the other was to live with someone, share Dharma, and develop with them. I was hoping he’d recommend the second option, but all he did was roll around on the bed laughing. When he stopped he said, ‘Possible, dear, but very difficult. Instead of one crazy mind you have two, three, four crazy minds, plus all the problems of food and education.’

“‘So what about ordination,’ I asked. Again he rolled around the bed laughing, then sat up. He glanced at the sky with a shrug and said, ‘Practice Dharma twenty-four hours a day.’ I knew this was the real answer to my question and felt this iron hand grip my heart as I thought, ‘Well, I’ve got to be a monk.’”

Back at Bea Ribush’s Lama Yeshe made himself at home. He watched TV, played with Bea’s little poodle, Bobik, and did some cooking. He telephoned Tibetologist David Templeman and once again invited him to tea.

“I only had some very low-grade Tibetan tea that time, but I brought it,” said David. “We sat in front of the TV with a huge pile of cakes and watched the coverage of the chaos taking place at the end of the Vietnam War. Lama was not agitated as we watched people fleeing for their lives, but sitting beside him I noticed him becoming warmer and warmer—more than warm. It was like sitting next to a furnace. He didn’t try to hold back the tears and neither did I. Then he turned to me and said in English, ‘Now they are refugees, just like me. Now they will have big sufferings.’ I got the impression he was right in there with them, that he was one of them, going through every second of their pain. It was a very strong experience.”

Embarking on the 1975 Teaching Tour

Lama Yeshe, Sydney, Australia, 1975From 1975: We Need a Foundation by Adele Hulse, Big Love author:

Leaving India behind, the lamas and Dr. Nick flew to Bangkok where they stayed at the YMCA. Very high temperatures and humidity left Lama Yeshe so exhausted that Nick became worried—it was the first time he’d observed the effects of heat on Lama. Nevertheless, no invitations were refused and the two lamas taught a weekend course to sixty people while they were there.

Lama Yeshe rushed here, there, and everywhere and never ceased patting women’s hands, which shocked some Thai monks, who never touch women. He also met with a Sera monk, Geshe Tengye, who would join Lama Yeshe’s organization a few years later, and with Zasep Tulku, a graduate of Freda Bedi’s Young Lamas’ Home School, who had come to Thailand to study vipassana meditation under direction from the Council for Religious Affairs in the Tibetan government-in-exile. “Oh, that’s too bad,” Lama Yeshe said to Zasep Tulku. “I need you. It would be nice if you could go to Australia.” A couple of years later, this would actually come to pass.

Lama Yeshe, Lama Zopa, and Nick arrived in Sydney on 19 March 1975. Electric Roger, a Sydney local, had rented a house for them in a quiet location for six weeks. Lama Zopa Rinpoche could do retreat there while Lama Yeshe taught. Then Lama could do retreat while Rinpoche taught. Roger acted as Zopa Rinpoche’s attendant at the house, but Lama Yeshe preferred to be alone and to do his own shopping.

A few days later Lama Yeshe and Nick flew to Melbourne to stay with Bea Ribush. All the old Kopan students in the area, mostly Nick’s friends, were delighted to see him. Bea too had become very devoted to Lama—so much so she failed to notice the way he treated her beloved son, which was abruptly to say the least. “Bring this! Get that! Now!” Nick tried hard, but Lama was unrelenting.

From Lama Yeshe’s talk at Melbourne University on 25 March 1975:

When I talk about mind I’m not just talking about my mind, my trip. I’m talking about the mind of each and every universal sentient being. The way we live, the way we think—everything is dedicated to material pleasure. We consider sense objects to be of utmost importance and materialistically devote ourselves to whatever makes us happy, famous or popular. Even though all this comes from our mind, we are so totally preoccupied with external objects that we never look within, we never question why we find them so interesting.

As long as we exist our mind is an inseparable part of us. As a result we are always up and down. It is not our body that goes up and down, it’s our mind—this mind whose way of functioning we do not understand. Therefore, we sometimes need to examine ourselves, not just our body, but our mind. After all, it is our mind that is always telling us what to do. We have to know our own psychology, or in religious terminology perhaps, our inner nature. Anyway, no matter what we call it, we have to know our own mind.

Don’t think that examining and knowing the nature of your mind is just an Eastern trip. That’s a wrong conception. It’s your trip. How can you separate your body or your self-image, from your mind? It’s impossible. You think you are an independent person, free to travel the world, enjoying everything. Despite what you think you are not free. I’m not saying you are under the control of someone else. It’s your own uncontrolled mind, your own attachment that oppresses you. If you discover how you oppress yourself, your uncontrolled mind will disappear. Knowing your own mind is the solution to all your problems.

 * * * Meeting with psychiatrists and social workers * * *

That afternoon there was a question-and-answer session for thirty psychiatrists and social workers in the conference room of one of the city’s largest public hospitals. For ninety minutes Lama Yeshe explained the Dharma approach to mental problems to a critical and cynical audience whose questions were designed to trip up this Tibetan monk. After all, he was not a doctor. But what he said was impressively clear.

From Lama Yeshe’s discussion with mental health professionals at Prince Henry’s Hospital, Melbourne, Australia, on 25 March 1975:

By mental illness I mean the kind of mind that does not see reality, a mind that tends to either exaggerate or underestimate the qualities of the person or object it perceives, which always causes problems to arise. In the West you wouldn’t consider this to be mental illness, but Western psychology’s interpretation is too narrow. If someone is obviously emotionally disturbed you consider that to be a problem, but if someone has a fundamental inability to see reality, to see things as they really are and understand his or her own true nature, you don’t. Not knowing your own basic mental attitude is a huge problem. Human problems are more than just emotional distress or disturbed relationships. In fact these are tiny problems. It’s as if there’s this huge ocean of problems below but all we see are the waves on the surface.

Among the topics they discussed was the issue of anger and aggression.

Q: Some Western psychologists believe that aggression is an important and necessary part of human nature, that anger is a kind of positive driving force, even though it sometimes gets people into trouble. What is your view of anger and aggression?

Lama: I encourage people not to express their anger, not to let it out. Instead, I have people try to understand why they get angry, what causes it and how it arises. When you realize these things, instead of manifesting externally your anger digests itself. In the West some people believe that you get rid of anger by expressing it, that you finish it by letting it out. Actually, in this case what happens is that you leave an imprint in your mind to get angry again. The effect is just the opposite of what they believe. It looks like your anger escaped, but in fact you’re just collecting more anger in your mind. The imprints that anger leaves on your consciousness simply reinforce your tendency to respond to situations with more anger. But not allowing it to come out doesn’t mean you are suppressing it, bottling it up. That’s also dangerous. You have to learn to investigate the deeper nature of anger, aggression, anxiety or whatever it is that troubles you. When you look into the deeper nature of negative energy you’ll see that it’s really quite insubstantial, that it’s only mind. As your mental expression changes, the negative energy disappears, digested by the wisdom that understands the nature of hatred, anger, aggression and so forth.

Q: Where did the very first moment of anger come from—this anger that leaves imprint after imprint?

Lama: Anger comes from attachment to sense pleasure. Check up. This is wonderful psychology, but it can be difficult to understand. When someone touches something to which you are very attached, you freak out. Attachment is the source of anger.

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.

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