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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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Lama Yeshe’s geshe degree & Manjushri teachings

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

Shortly after Yangsi Rinpoche’s enthronement, the lamas went to Bodhgaya for His Holiness’s winter teachings. From there they went to Varanasi where they called on Geshe Legden, one of Lama’s teachers from Sera, who held a teaching position at the Central Institute of Higher Tibetan Studies at Sarnath.

“I invited them to my place for dinner and noticed that Lama Zopa was very skinny and unhealthy looking,” Geshe Legden recalled. “Lama Yeshe was very concerned that Lama Zopa refused to eat meat, because it was bad karma. I told Lama Zopa, ‘You’ve got to look after your health, even if it does mean eating a bit of meat. If you don’t nourish your body properly, then practicing Dharma properly is difficult. I have never come across any particular point in the Vinaya Sutra saying monks may not eat meat, except in relation to impure meat—when an animal is slaughtered specifically for you.’ Lama Zopa thanked me for saying these things and we debated long on the pros and cons of the issue.”

Geshe Legden also spoke to Lama Yeshe about completing his geshe degree. “I said it was good karma to do it even though he has even greater knowledge, experience, and realization than a geshe. I reminded him that one of the rules of Sera Jé was that if any geshe finds the big offerings he has to make as part of the examination a financial burden, he is exempted from making them. He told me that he would love to do the geshe examination, but he no longer had the time to do it. I went to the monastery and looked up the list to find out when it was Lama Yeshe’s turn to sit the examination. I even put his name down for it by offering a khata. But it’s true, he just didn’t have the time. He had started a tradition in the West and was too busy opening centers and teaching so many students and doing so much marvelous work. Later, all the monks acknowledged that none of them had done nearly as much as he had to bring Dharma to the West. My gut feeling is that Lama Yeshe felt that if he was cooped up in the monastery as abbot or gekö or administrator—the kinds of things he might be required to do if he completed the degree —he wouldn’t have time for his other unprecedented and unparalleled work.”

From Sarnath, the lamas returned to Kopan for Losar (Tibetan New Year), which fell on February 12. During the celebrations Lama asked the Westerners to show him some Inji dancing. Lama’s monks and nuns were reluctant to do so because dancing to music was against their monastic vows. However, since their guru had asked, Steve Malasky and the youngest nun, Spring, got up and did some rock and roll jive in their robes. Lama rolled on the floor crying with laughter.

At the end of January, Lama Yeshe had given the Sangha a Manjushri initiation, and after Losar gave four nights of commentary on the meditation practice and retreat, completing them just before leaving to go on tour again. That summer many of the Sangha and lay people did Manjushri retreat in Kopan’s gompa while Yeshe Khadro, Sangye Khadro and John Feuille, among others, went to Lawudo to do their Manjushri retreat there.

 

From Lama Yeshe’s Manjushri teachings:

Most of the time, our objects of joy are not limitless; we discriminate. Our minds are funny; they decide, “This one, I like; that one, I don’t.” We divide things into pieces. It doesn’t come from the side of the object; it comes from our own mind’s decision. We see a person and automatically our mind goes, “I’m not happy with him; he gives me no pleasure.” It doesn’t come from him; it comes from your dualistic determination that has already created divisions in your own mind so that when you see people you automatically categorize them. This creates difficulties; it causes conflict and complications and psychological bother.

Do you see how fantastic Lord Buddha’s psychology and scientific understanding of the mind is? How well he explains how the mind works? If you can understand this, you’ll see it’s really too much. It’s amazing; you don’t need too many words to describe it. It’s beautiful…and really so simple.

Anyway, when we talk about limitless love, we’re not talking about cement; we’re talking about living beings. Most of the time, our conflicts arise from contact with other human beings, each other, not from dogs or cement. Westerners are always going on, “Oh, the environment is no good, that’s why we have problems. This house is no good; this food’s no good. That’s why I’m unhappy.” So much emphasis on externals, which is completely opposite to Lord Buddha’s scientific knowledge wisdom, the way Lord Buddha thinks.

We should check up our everyday lives here. We always blame outside things for our problems: “Shopping is difficult; Kathmandu is difficult,” and so forth. Actually, this is a deep subject; a very deep subject. It seems simple. It’s not at all simple. If you think about it properly, your ego will freak out; when you actualize Lord Buddha’s teachings, your ego has no space.

I always emphasize how in our daily lives we are always involved with other human beings. If you can see everyone around you as a friend, that will be beautiful. That will be your mandala. You’ll be happy wherever you go. In a way, you can say those around you are symbolic of all sentient beings. Look at a person you know; that person symbolizes your mandala. If you can be happy around that person and everybody else you know, perhaps you can be happy anywhere. Experiment, at least in your mind, on the basis of your interactions with that person. Visualize yourself in various situations or in different countries and see. The people around you put you into different situations, so if you check correctly, you can see how you’ll react under different circumstances with other sentient beings. Doing this is really worthwhile.

 

The Fifth Kopan Meditation Course

Fifth Meditation Course, Kopan monastery, Nepal, 1973From 1973: First Steps First Students by Adele Hulse, Big Love author:

The time had come during the course for Lama Yeshe to come and give a talk. He was to give refuge and precepts on December 6, so on the previous day he gave a preliminary talk about them to everyone. “He’s not like Rinpoche,” the old hands told the new ones. “He makes you laugh, makes you feel like you can do anything, that you’re wonderful and definitely going to become enlightened, rather than remaining absolutely hopeless and going straight to hell!”

Lama Yeshe entered the tent in his best robes. As he climbed up onto the throne he snapped his finger and thumb, a customary gesture. Once a teacher is seated it is usual for those who are attending the teaching to respectfully prostrate three times. To some this finger snap seemed a rather haughty signal to everyone to make their prostrations. Lama Yeshe later explained that this finger snap was actually a special prayer. “I am not a throne lama; this is not my place. So I snap to remember impermanence,” he said. “It’s an antidote to pride.”

His talk had its usual effect. Everyone relaxed, cried with laughter, forgot for a time their anxieties and sorrows and felt inspired to practice Dharma—to be of infinite service to others until the day they died. And all this took place while Lama Yeshe, in his unique brand of English, was saying things never before heard, such as, “Your berserky mind preak out!” Many European students who were there also spoke little English, but everyone could understand Lama Yeshe. Afterward they discussed his talk among themselves. Some had heard one thing emphasized, others had heard something else.

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From Lama Yeshe’s talk on refuge and precepts on December 5:

Anila Ann told me that some people wanted to take refuge and the five precepts but before doing so it’s necessary to understand why you’re doing so, how to do so and what the benefits are. That’s very important. If you don’t know all this, your practice becomes less powerful and you can start to have doubts about it rather than feeling comfortable with it. You need to know what you are doing. Therefore I’m going to give you a short introduction.

Actually, I don’t need to tell you much because you’ve had teachings on refuge and karma during the course and in meditation have already checked beyond the words. This is actually the perfect introduction.

Taking refuge means having a continuously enthusiastic feeling for discovering the pure energy and omniscient wisdom that we call “buddha.” It doesn’t really matter what we call it; there are so many words. Actually it means perfect wisdom, understanding wisdom, and how seeking this is beneficial for our life rather than living with the empty, cold feelings that we often experience. Taking refuge brings a warm feeling into our heart and the continuous wish to grow and develop instead of thinking, “Oh, I’m hopeless, I can’t do anything,” the kind of thinking that brings you down.

You have thought about the perfect qualities of Buddha, Dharma and Sangha and realized that you too can acquire those qualities and are no longer under the illusion that Buddha and Jesus Christ are way up there in the sky somewhere and you are down here, nothing. Thinking that you are nothing, that you’re just like an animal, is totally the wrong way to think. You’re putting yourself down, completely underestimating your ability. You have the incredible potential to develop in exactly the same way that Lord Buddha and Jesus did. They both appeared on earth and passed away—their physical atoms don’t exist here any more, do they? But even today we still enjoy their wisdom light, power and compassion.

When Lord Buddha was here, his body was not an ordinary body. Through the power of his bodhicitta, to use Buddhist terminology, whenever people saw his body they gained higher realizations, such as single-pointed concentration. But when he was finished on the physical level, his knowledge, the power of his wisdom, lived on such that we can still feel it today. This is the result of the wisdom and true compassion of his bodhicitta mind. So I’m saying that discovering that you have the ability or potential to develop that within you, that you can grow continuously without stopping, no matter what happens to your physical body, your mind can be completely relaxed. Even though you get old, changing, changing, changing, on the mental level you can continuously develop and better understand your own nature and no matter that the external world goes up and down, your internal world is always supported by your understanding. You are supported by your wisdom in the middle way rather than falling this way or that.

We talk about eternal happiness, eternal bliss, eternal joy—these qualities last forever, unlike the momentary, transient pleasures of samsara. And they arise from knowledge-wisdom. So taking refuge in Buddha, Dharma and Sangha means you are taking refuge in Lord Buddha’s ultimate wisdom, true compassion and everlasting bliss.

Think what a fantastic state of mind that is. Just imagining it brings you energy. I mean, you haven’t yet attained it but just visualizing the omniscient mind, thinking about it, brings its reflection into your mind. You feel more peaceful and relaxed. A sensation of happiness comes into your mind; a warm feeling, a really warm feeling. By discovering that such qualities lie within you makes you also respect other sentient beings’ abilities and stops you from putting them down, too: “You can’t do anything; you’re hopeless.” That’s not right. By discovering your own abilities you respect others and generate warm feelings toward them rather than hatred. It’s so simple.”

* * *

Lama Yeshe’s words had the power to change peoples’ lives, among them Dieter Kratzer’s. “I sat throughout his talk in full lotus posture,” Dieter explained. “This was something I had never been able to do until then. I closed my eyes and during the whole two hours of that talk I just trembled and cried. ‘Come on Dieter,’ I told myself. ‘You’re German, male, rational, not a slave to your emotions.’ But I couldn’t stop. Afterward I made an appointment to see Lama. He told me, ‘I have a feeling we have known each other before some time in the past.’ At the next teaching I not only sat without any pain in my legs at all, but for the very first time I understood every word Lama Zopa was saying. It was all absolutely crystal clear.”

Another highlight of Lama Yeshe’s talks was question-and-answer time. Some students liked to ask complex questions, designed perhaps to parade their intellectual skills. Lama Yeshe’s answers always seemed tailored to each type of person. First he would listen with eyes closed, rocking slowly back and forth. Then came a period of intense silence. When he finally answered, the words seemed to come from somewhere very deep within him. They cut sharply through cleverness, encouraged the timid and exposed logical flaws. Many people tried to nail Lama with Western science but he always won—and in the simplest language, which everyone could understand.

 

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