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Mahakala, the IMI protector

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

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

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

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

 

“We Need a Foundation”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

 

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Lama Yeshe’s thoughts about the Spiritual Teacher

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

“Q: What is your definition of a guru?

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

Q: Why do we need a teacher?

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

Q: How can we recognize the right teacher?

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

The Bodhgaya Teachings

Zina Rachevsky, 1971From 1971: The First Kopan Meditation Course by Adele Hulse, Big Love author:

The lamas always attended the Dalai Lama’s Bodhgaya teachings, but this was Zina’s first visit.

Ann and James traveled together, arriving at 3:00 in the morning. Bodhgaya was packed tight with Tibetans, but a Thai monk they met on the train invited them to stay at his temple. They were welcomed and given comfortable bunk beds. Monks and nuns always sleep in their long undershirts, and it simply never occurred to Ann, who was tall and very wiry, that they didn’t realize she was a woman. The lamas were staying at the Tibetan temple. Next morning, Ann and James hurried over there. “Lama,” said Ann, “they think I’m a monk. What am I going to do?” “Listen,” said Lama, “in the eyes of the Buddha there is no male and female; it doesn’t make any difference at all. Bodhgaya is full and there’s no place to stay, so just be quiet and don’t speak.” They returned to the Thai temple, but the following day some friends gave them a big room in the Dak Bungalow. Lama Yeshe and Zopa Rinpoche moved in there as well. In the room next door was an aristocratic woman from Darjeeling who had her servants prepare wonderful meals for them all.

Zina stayed at the best address in Bodhgaya, the Tourist Bungalow, which had bathrooms. Baba Ram Dass was paying for her room. He was in town attending a ten-day vipassana meditation course with the Burmese master, S. N. Goenka. Goenka, a layman and the most prominent student of the great master U Ba Khin, taught in English. His Vipassana courses consistently attracted many Westerners interested in learning meditation.

The lamas took their students to hear Kyabjé Trijang Rinpoche. At the time, Trijang Rinpoche was unwell and would teach while lying down. Next, they all received an initiation of the highest yoga tantra diety Yamantaka.

This was followed by a three-week teaching (in Tibetan) from Kyabjé Ling Rinpoche. The Westerners did not understand one word.

All through Ling Rinpoche’s incomprehensible teachings it became more and more apparent to Zina that Zopa Rinpoche needed to teach a course in English. Lama Yeshe always claimed that his own English was not good enough, that only Zopa Rinpoche could deliver such a course. Thinking of Goenka’s success, Zina suggested a ten-day course, but Rinpoche insisted that ten days wasn’t nearly enough time to teach anything and that the whole idea was ridiculous. Consequently, he wasn’t interested.

Bodhgaya was a social hub for the Tibetans. Lama Yeshe ran around meeting all sorts of old friends. At one such reunion he got into a debate and swung his mala so energetically that it broke, showering the crowd with beads. About twenty old friends from Sera were staying at the Tibetan monastery, among them Jampa Gyatso, who had become a full-fledged Lharampa geshe. Lama asked him if he was interested in teaching Westerners. “Not now,” replied Geshe Jampa Gyatso, “but I might consider it in the future.” Geshe Jampa Gyatso later
went to Italy at Lama Yeshe’s behest and became the beloved resident teacher at Istituto Lama Tzong Khapa near Pisa, residing there for twenty-seven years until his death in 2007.

Old friends teased Thubten Yeshe about mixing with Westerners, saying his main practice now appeared to be making money from Injis. One day Lama and Zopa Rinpoche produced bread and butter, tomatoes and such and started making sandwiches for themselves. None of the Tibetans had ever seen raw food prepared this way before. “What are you doing?” they asked. “Why won’t you spend money on food now that you are rich?”

The Inji students, eager for teachings in English, were happy to hear that Lama Yeshe had agreed to hold a question-and-answer session at the Tibetan temple. Among those attending were Alex Berzin and his childhood friend, Jon Landaw, both Americans from New Jersey who were in Bodhgaya attending teachings. Alex was one of the very few Westerners who had studied the Tibetan language before coming to India, and during the previous year he had lived in Dalhousie, studying with Geshe Ngawang Dhargyey. Jon had just arrived on his first visit to India and, once the winter had passed, he planned to go to Dalhousie to join his friend in studying with Geshe Dhargyey there. As for Geshe Dhargyey himself, he would soon be appointed by His Holiness the Dalai Lama to become the principal teacher at the new Library of Tibetan Works and Archives in Dharamsala. In 1972 he took up this position at the Library, which would eventually become a major study center for Westerners in India, and held it until 1984. In 1985 Geshe Dhargyey moved to New Zealand, where he resided until he passed away in 1995.

Jon was immediately overcome by his first sight of Lama Yeshe. “As soon as he walked into the room, smiling that wonderful smile of his, I experienced something I had never felt before,” Jon happily recalled. “It was as if iron filings filled my heart and Lama was a powerful electro-magnet that brought them to life, causing them to churn about and rearrange themselves. He was different from anyone I had ever met before and I liked him immediately. Although he appeared to be someone who had transcended the ordinary, he wasn’t at all otherworldly; instead, he was very human and I felt I could trust him completely. To say that his English was poor would be generous; in fact, it was very ‘broken,’ as he himself said, but I had never met anyone who could communicate so wonderfully. When he spoke about developing a ‘warm peeling,’ I did not understand his words at first. However, I soon realized he was talking about the ‘warm feeling’ that was growing within me at that very moment. Besides being so warm and clear, Lama was also very humorous. This endeared him to me immediately.”

The First Group Ordination

The first ordination, 1970From 1970: The First Group Ordination written by Adele Hulse, Big Love author:

From the Lama Yeshe’s teachings to his monks and nuns:

The reason we are unhappy is because we have extreme craving for sense objects, samsaric objects, and we grasp at them. We are seeking to solve our problems but we are not seeking in the right place. The right place is our own ego grasping; we have to loosen that tightness, that’s all.

According to the Buddhist point of view, monks and nuns are supposed to hold renunciation vows. The meaning of monks and nuns renouncing the world is that they have less craving for and grasping at sense objects. But you cannot say that they have already given up samsara, because monks and nuns still have stomachs! The thing is…the English word “renounce” is linguistically tricky. You can say that monks and nuns renounce their stomachs, but that doesn’t necessarily mean they actually throw their stomachs away.

So, I want you to understand that renouncing sensory pleasure doesn’t mean throwing nice things away. Even if you do, it doesn’t mean you have renounced them. Renunciation is a totally inner experience.

Renunciation of samsara does not mean you throw samsara away because your body and your nose are samsara. How can you throw your nose away? Your mind and body are samsara—well, at least mine are. So I cannot throw them away. Therefore, renunciation means less craving; it means being more reasonable instead of putting too much psychological pressure on yourself and acting crazy.

The important point for us to know, then, is that we should have less grasping at sense pleasures, because most of the time our grasping at and craving desire for worldly pleasure does not give us satisfaction. That is the main point. It leads to more dissatisfaction and to psychologically crazier reactions. That is the main point.

 

Both Kopan and Rana House were in chaos as the lamas, Zina, and the four students to be ordained organized their robes and gifts for the officiating monks. Lama Yeshe came back from Kathmandu with a huge stack of texts for His Holiness the Dalai Lama, including one particularly wide handwritten text containing many illustrations. The others were printed from woodblocks. He asked Ann to find suitcases to put them in.

At Kathmandu airport the customs officers were constantly on the lookout for antiques, which could not leave the country. The illustrated text was packed into a round case on its own, and Ann was nervous when they asked to see inside. “Okay, let me open it for you,” she suggested and swiftly turned to a page with no illustrations. “Max and Lama had both wandered off and disappeared at the end of the customs hall. Lama was spinning his mala so fast I knew he was up to something. The customs official looked at the page for a long moment, then said we could go through. When I joined the others, I could hardly breathe,” said Ann.

From Delhi, Zina, Sylvia, James and Zopa Rinpoche traveled to Dharamsala by train.

Max had arranged for herself, Lama Yeshe and Ann to fly, but they were grounded in Delhi due to a strike. It was late at night. A taxi driver at the airport approached Max and begged her to let him take them to Dharamsala—he remembered her from a trip to the Taj Mahal three years earlier. Even Delhi could be a small town, especially with regard to foreigners who tipped well. In the middle of the night they came to a state border barred by a gate and a sleeping sentry who could not be roused. “You must know some way around this,” Lama encouraged the driver, who then drove off the road and crossed the river below via boards and little islands.

Arriving in Dharamsala they took rooms at the local government guesthouse. These are called Dak Bungalows, or Dak Guesthouses, and can be found all over India. They were about to go and have breakfast when the Injis expressed some concerns about their unlockable doors. Padlocks were a necessity, and they hadn’t brought any. “This will do it,” said Lama Yeshe, wrapping his mala around the doorknob. “No one will have the nerve to take that off.” Later that day they moved into the famously seedy Hotel Kailash in McLeod Ganj, the village above Dharamsala—much to the visible disgust of the local monks. “Well, if you don’t like me being here, then you give me a better place,” Lama Yeshe told them. They shuffled away. Everyone in Dharamsala was on the thin edge of poverty, and they didn’t have a better place to offer.

Lama Yeshe organized everything. On the eve of the big day, Lama brought his students to an interview with His Holiness the Dalai Lama, seeking his approval and blessing. The next day, 16 December 1970, the ordination took place at Chopra House, Kyabjé Ling Rinpoche’s residence located on a hill just outside McLeod Ganj. Geshe Rabten presided as he had promised, along with Lama Yeshe, Gen Jampa Wangdu, and two other monks. Traditionally, four monks and an abbot are required for monastic ordination ceremonies.

Lama Zopa Rinpoche did not attend. The four Westerners received a short lecture in English on the vows they were about to take, but the ceremony itself was in Tibetan. They were instructed not to speak or ask questions. Whenever a response was required, Lama answered on their behalf. Afterward, everyone posed for photos.

 

 

Lama Yeshe’s English Language

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

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

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

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

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

Jampa Laine

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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