In October 1970 Ann McNeil, a lanky Canadian ski instructor, arrived from Mykonos to stay with her friend Max.
Ann McNeil: “Max asked me if I wanted to receive a teaching from Lama Yeshe. She had given me a room in the tower of her house, and Lama Yeshe came up there. He taught me how to watch and count my breath, to imagine it entering and leaving.”
Lama Yeshe’s instructions on the basic nine-round breathing meditation:
First sit cross-legged, in the lotus or half-lotus position if you can, or just comfortably. Make sure your mind is here with your body. It’s no good if your body is here but your mind is at home. You can’t take a meditation course with your body alone. Meditation is done by the mind. Therefore, your mind should be with you in the present, not obsessed with another time, place, person, or some other object. The method we use to bring attention totally to the here-and-now is concentration on the breath— focusing on how your breath moves through your nervous system.
This is not all that this method is helpful for; it has many other benefits. It can even help you recover from physical illness. For example, if your nervous system has been damaged by a stroke, intensive concentration on the movement of your breath through your nervous system can restore its function. This is experience, not just empty talk.
If you are unfamiliar with the following meditation, you might find it easier to concentrate by closing the nostril you are not focusing on with your index finger.
As you breathe out through your left nostril, use your finger to block the right. Exhale slowly; don’t rush it. Breathe normally, but make sure to exhale completely. Then, move your finger to block the left nostril as you inhale slowly and deeply through your right. Then, for a second time, block your right nostril while you exhale slowly, gently, naturally and completely through the left, and then block your left nostril as you again inhale slowly and completely through the right. Repeat all this for a third time. Thus, you exhale through the left and inhale through the right three times.
Then reverse the procedure, breathing out through the right and in through the left three times. While doing this, sit up straight. This keeps your nervous system straight and allows the air you inhale to pervade your whole body, your entire nervous system. If you don’t keep your spine straight when you meditate, it is difficult for the breath energy to spread throughout your nervous system. Nevertheless, do this practice very naturally. Don’t force it.
When you inhale, feel that the air completely fills your body, and when you exhale, feel that it completely leaves. But while you’re doing this, don’t sit there thinking, “Now I’m doing the breathing exercise.” That’s not necessary. Just do it, concentrating on the movement of the breath energy through your nervous system as much as you possibly can.
Also, don’t think that this meditation is ridiculously simple. If you are aware, you will notice that people who are emotionally or mentally disturbed—for example, those who are depressed—breathe differently from normal people. This shows that the way the breath energy moves through the nervous system is very closely connected with the mind. You know from your own experience that when you are angry you don’t breathe normally. Sometimes anger can even make you physically sick.
You can measure scientifically how many times a day you breathe in and out. Buddhism has also calculated this. If you train yourself in the breathing meditation and practice breathing in and out slowly every day, you can prolong your life. If air enters your nervous system in a disturbed way it can disturb your mind. You should breathe slowly, steadily, naturally and completely, like a reliable old clock ticking away. Your breath is like an internal clock.
After you have breathed out through the left and in through the right three times, and out through the right and in through the left three times, breathe in and out through both nostrils together. Again, bring air in slowly, gently, naturally and completely, allowing it to fill your nervous system, and slowly, gently and completely send it out again. If your belt is too tight, loosen it. You should be comfortable when you do this practice. Again, don’t think, “I am doing the breathing exercise…right nostril…left nostril….” Just let your mind dwell in the concentration. Breathe in and out through both nostrils together about twenty times.
“The following weekend he gave me another lesson,” Ann continued. “I told him that I’d done Transcendental Meditation and been involved with the Hare Krishnas, and so I wondered which technique he thought was best for my temperament. He suggested we go to Swayambhu to ask Serkong Rinpoche what he thought. Then he pulled out this long Tibetan text and said, ‘Meanwhile, I’ll just recite this to bless you and give you a mantra. You just relax and meditate while I read.’
“He started reading and I noticed something interesting happening to his face—it was kind of lifting off, like a mask. I watched it float out about four inches, drift over to one side then go back to where it was. I thought, Wow! This is even more interesting than LSD! He continued reading, and it happened again. This time I really looked at it hard. I saw that the floating mask, though similar and Tibetan-looking, wasn’t really his own face. I thought, if it happens again, I’ll know I’m really seeing something…and it did, it happened again. Then Lama finished reading and got me to write down what I later discovered was the Vajrasattva mantra. By that time, I was pretty excited by him and said I didn’t think we really had to go see another lama. But he said, no, no, we should go.
“The next day was Max’s day off, so he pushed her to get out her little blue Volkswagen car and we drove over to see Serkong Dorje Chang. Serkong Rinpoche threw a mo and said to do whatever I’d been doing before I joined the Hare Krishnas. I told Lama that I’d been into many different things then, and he said, ‘Doesn’t matter, dear; we’ll ask again.’ The next time, the answer was, ‘Doesn’t matter which path you take to enlightenment, they all lead there.’ So I thought, Oh darn, I’ll just have to make the decision myself. But I liked Lama Yeshe, so I asked him if he would be my guru. He said, ‘Yes, dear,’ and that was that.
“The next day was Sunday and Max asked me to escort Lama up to Kopan. In that way I would find out where it was and be able to hear his lecture that afternoon. She told me to make sure that he didn’t dawdle so he would get there on time. As we walked up from Boudha, there was dew on the ground. Lama stopped constantly to pick up these worms that were on the path and put them to one side, so they wouldn’t get stepped on. I said that it was going to make us late and would he please stop. He just looked at me. His face was so shiny, so radiantly blissful that it was unforgettable. I knew he was showing me this bliss for my benefit, but I just didn’t know what to do with the experience.”
When the lamas returned to Rana House the following weekend, Max discussed her ordination with Lama Yeshe, at which point Ann asked to be ordained as well. Lama said that his own teacher Geshe Rabten should perform the ceremony. One week later Geshe Rabten sent a message saying that he would ordain them in Dharamsala on 16 December. Lama Yeshe suggested to Sylvia White, now living in Kathmandu with Harriet Straus, that she too might like to get ordained. There was also an American boy, James (whose surname is not known), who had been taking teachings for some time. He also wanted to become ordained.
By now the lamas were holding regular classes on Wednesdays and Sundays for a dozen or so Westerners. Numbers grew as the word went out that there were teachings available in English. Well, “sort of” English. Lama Yeshe taught in Tibetan, interspersed with an occasional string of complex psychological terms he had learned in English. Lama Zopa would then translate. Lama Yeshe constantly deferred to his closest disciple during these teachings. “Zopa Rinpoche is much better at teaching than I am,” he said. “I’m nobody, just a monk. Not even a geshe. I’m a drop-out geshe!”
Where he did push his charge was at the dinner table, constantly encouraging the frail Zopa Rinpoche, who did not look well, to eat. “You must eat! You must be strong for all sentient beings!” Lama Yeshe occasionally referred to his own weak heart, saying, “You never know how long your teacher will be with you.”