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Zina Rachevsky Dies

Zina and her daughter RheaFrom 1973: First Steps First Students by Adele Hulse, Big Love author:

“Khumjung, where Rinpoche had sent me to find Gomchen-la, is in the last wave of mountains before Mount Everest,” Chötak recalled. “During the monsoon the mornings are usually clear, but then it rains solidly for the rest of the day. But the first three days I was there it rained non-stop. When the sun broke through, there was a huge rainbow in front of an extraordinary sunset of glowing fire. I fed two crows there and they ‘talked’ to me. Whenever someone was coming along the path, they’d land on my roof with a big thud to let me know. They were right every time.

“One day the crows started making a big fuss on the roof. I looked down the valley and in the distance I could see Trulshik Rinpoche coming along with his entourage. The Sherpas burnt piles of fragrant juniper along the way and you could hear his deep puja voice reverberating for miles. When he arrived, his attendant told me that I had to speak to him. By then I could speak just enough Tibetan to get by.

“Rinpoche took me by the arm and told me that a runner had come up from Thubten Chöling to Tengboché to tell him that Zina had died three days ago. He said that he had known she was dead before the runner came. He told me that as he was getting up on the first morning of those three days of endless rain, he was meant to read the text for that day but then changed his plans and decided to meditate instead. He said to me, ‘I stayed in my room and meditated all that day, all that night, all the next day and night, and all the next day as well. At sunset on the third day I stopped.’

“Then he looked me in the eye and told me that he had done powa for Zina and transferred her consciousness. He said that the signs were good, the sky auspicious and the weather had broken to reveal double rainbows. However, he was worried about Rhea, who was still at Thubten Chöling. He said she was a very special girl and he wanted me to get down to Thubten Chöling as soon as possible before they sent someone to take her away.

“Zina had died just at the time of that incredible sunset—pink-tinged neon turquoise over white snow peaks. I’ll never forget that sunset. Trulshik Rinpoche said Lama Yeshe had told him that Zina would die soon and that she was the cooperative cause for the existence of Kopan and his whole trip of teaching Westerners.

“I ran all the way down to Thubten Chöling, all night along the black, narrow paths. I even hired a Sherpa to carry my pack. It took me two and a half days, but I didn’t get there in time. I walked into Junbesi the day after Zina had been cremated. Trulshik Rinpoche didn’t want to kidnap Rhea, he just wanted to see her and talk to her guardian. Conrad Rooks, Zina’s ex-husband, was in Kathmandu, having recently finished making the movie Siddhartha, so he came up and took her away. Mummy Max had passed him a message that had been sent to Kopan saying that Zina was seriously ill. She was dead by the time he arrived.”

There were all sorts of rumors as to the cause of Zina’s death. Apparently her stomach had swollen up like a basketball. She had had terrible cramps and was no longer able to fold her legs but had sat with them stretched out in front while she continued reciting mantras until she died. Some said her illness lasted five days and that on the morning of the fifth day she had sat up, announced she was going to die and then resumed saying mantras. Then there were rumors that she had been poisoned by a primitive Sherpa tribe that believed it was possible to take over another person’s power by killing them. Apparently the previous incarnation of the young Kopan tulku Gelek Gyatso, who had lived in the Junbesi area of Solu, was thought to have died that way. Others said that she had inadvertently poisoned herself by mistaking a local poisonous bulb for garlic; that she had died of amoebic dysentery; that she had died from eating another poisonous plant, datura; that she had died from untreated appendicitis.

Clive Giboire was in his Kathmandu apartment when General Kiran, who’d rented his house to Zina’s mother, telephoned on an army radio. “He told me he had been radioed from Solu with the news that Zina was dead. He didn’t know who to contact so he called me,” said Clive. At the time Harriet, Zina’s mother, was in New York with Rhea’s Aunt Louise.

“Zina’s death was very traumatic for Rhea, who went to the United States soon afterward. All her grandmother’s family were devout Catholics, so she was subsequently raised a Catholic. Years later she showed a friend of mine a charming little storybook that her mother had written and drawn for her. But she was not prepared to talk about her mother’s death at all. She isn’t at all involved with Buddhist things.”

Rhea and some nuns were present when Zina’s head nodded forward and her consciousness left her body. It was said later that Rhea told Clive Giboire, “Mummy sat back and stopped counting prayers.” She had just turned eight years old.

Piero Cerri was with Lama Yeshe in Tushita Retreat Centre when Lama said to him, “Zina is dying now.” Lama went immediately into meditation. He told Piero later that he had transferred Zina’s consciousness to Vajrayogini’s pure land.

Less than a year after her death Tom Laird, who had visited Zina in April together with his friend Mimi, was back at Thubten Chöling and asked Trulshik Rinpoche what had happened to Zina. “This time there was a translator,” said Tom. “He told us that Zina had had ‘a very good death,’ that she had died in meditation and that her daughter had been there and had lit her funeral pyre. I also heard that a doctor at the Hillary Hospital at Paphlu had tested her fecal matter and said that she had died of cholera. Indeed, there had been a cholera outbreak in that valley during that summer and several people had died.”

Lama Zopa said Zina knew she was going to die, that the signs in the weather during her cremation were very good, and that Trulshik Rinpoche had said she was in Vajrayogini’s pure land. Some time after this Zopa Rinpoche asked Zong Rinpoche where Zina had taken rebirth; Zong Rinpoche also said that Zina had been reborn in a pure land.

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The First Meditation Course at Kopan

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

” Zina was still eager for Lama Yeshe to teach a course, but he refused. She turned to Lama Zopa Rinpoche. “She pestered me like a mosquito,” Rinpoche recalled. “She kept on asking until I began to feel encouraged in my heart and developed a strong wish to do it. I asked Lama Yeshe what he thought. He replied, ‘Well, if you think it will be beneficial, then you do it.’ So with Lama’s blessing I agreed,” said Zopa Rinpoche.

The first course was held in the spring of April 1971. It was springtime at Kopan, dry and breezy. The monsoon rains weren’t due to start until the end of May or early June, but the colder winter months had passed and the temperature was quite warm during the days.  Zina took charge of the overall arrangements and Zopa Rinpoche taught a ten-day course based on his stamp-filled text on thought transformation. With help from Anila Ann, he managed to translate six lines on hell, two lines on the perfect human rebirth, and one line on karma. These were developed into an extensive meditation on how to regard friends, enemies and strangers with equanimity and an explanation of the sufferings of animals and pretas (hungry ghosts). In those days, the only substantial book on Dharma that was available in English was Herbert Guenther’s translation of Gampopa’s Jewel Ornament of Liberation, which was first published in 1959. “I taught mainly about the lower realms, the sufferings of hell beings and animals, ending up with the sufferings of human beings,” said Rinpoche.

 

From Lama Zopa Rinpoche’s lam-rim teachings:

In order to realize the three lower realms we must fully see the sufferings that exist there. However, at the moment we have no power to perceive these things directly, and therefore we should try to experience those realms through our practice, using the examples shown in the teachings. In this way we can gain the power to see this suffering clearly in our minds.

Even at this moment most beings are suffering in the three lower realms, especially in the narak realms.

Their suffering has not been created by God, or fixed by some other being. It is only a creation of those suffering beings’ minds, just as in a dream we may sometimes suffer in a fire, or from all kinds of fearful persons or demons fighting and frightening us. In the same way that these fearful dreams and visions are the creation of our illusive mind, so are the suffering and the realms of the naraks and so forth the creation of beings’ ignorant minds. However, the narak realms are not the same as dreams, but are karmic creations of the ignorant mind. This is similar to the way that one place can be seen differently by two different people—one may see a clean place while another person may see a dirty place. Although the object is the same, the view varies according to the level of mind, fortune, and the karma the being has created. As the mind reaches higher levels the enjoyments and the visions change, and the transcendental awareness and happiness that we experience increases more and more.

Each living beings’ samsara is a creation of that mind; each living being’s enlightenment is also a mental creation. In a dim room lit by a small candle with a flickering flame, a person without acute perception may see a fearful moving animal or demon, become afraid, and perhaps throw something at it. This problem is only the creation of that person’s mind. The person with a calm, relaxed mind, on the other hand, will see what is actually there clearly. All experiences are created by the mind, and similarly the suffering of the narak being is merely the creation of the suffering being’s mind. Therefore the choice to experience suffering, to be in a suffering realm, or to be in the perfect peace of enlightenment depends upon the decision of the mind.

Around a dozen people took that course, Zengo’s students from Bodhgaya as well as Åge, Zina, and Claudio Cipullo. Claudio had been down in Bodhgaya when he found himself staring fixedly at a photo of Lama Yeshe. “I decided he was calling me! That course was like an explanation of my whole life,” said Claudio. Losang Nyima, Lama Yeshe’s student from Tibet, acted as umze (chant leader) and took care of the candles, water bowls, incense, and food offerings arranged on the altars. He also supervised all the cooking. During the course Lama Yeshe stayed down at Max’s house.

Two days before the end of the course Lama Yeshe, in the company of a Lhasa Apso, returned to Kopan and gave a couple of talks. This wonderful little dog accompanied him nearly everywhere he went and was much admired by everyone at Kopan. Many strays found their way to Kopan and devoured any food they were offered, but this little dog always sat back very nobly and waited. She never fought for her food or tried to get at it until everyone else had finished. Then she’d eat alone, quietly. Actually, it was Rinpoche’s dog, a gift from his mother. She was named Drolma, which is Tibetan for Tara, the female buddha of enlightened skillful activity.

Anila Ann did not attend the course. “I wasn’t sure whether I wanted to do it or not. When I asked Lama Zopa, he was silent for about fifteen minutes; then he said it would be worthwhile. So I started it, but one day Lama Yeshe came up from Max’s house, called me out, and said, ‘Ann, you’re going to leave the course, walk up to Lawudo with some people, and spend the summer there. Lama Zopa will fly up in a few days’ time but there is no room in the plane for you.’ He said that he and Max were going to India.

“I suddenly felt very unsure about everything. He held out his arm, golden, luminous, and precious, and offered me his hand. I took it very gently and he said, ‘Don’t worry. Go to my room tonight and on my bed you’ll find my cloak. Wrap it around you and sit on my bed and meditate. Tomorrow you can leave for Lawudo.’

“After supper that night I went straight to Lama’s room at Max’s. It was actually the sunroom and had a wonderful view overlooking the Boudha stupa. I snuggled under his thick cloak, feeling a bit lost, a little cast aside. I knew Lama Zopa would take care of me at Lawudo, but just the same, I wasn’t feeling very secure. As for meditation, the best I could do was visualize Lama Yeshe sitting in front of me. Then his mouth opened as if he was about to speak, but it kept opening wider and wider until I was looking through it into this incredible vastness of a moonless night full of stars. It was like looking into the universe. His mouth and face melted away and there was just this vast emptiness. Suddenly I felt the shock of it and the vision stopped immediately.

“It was years before I realized that during those first few months Lama had actually given me all the teachings he had to give, but in a very subtle way.”

Zopa Rinpoche’s return to Lawudo that year, and his previous visit in May 1970, marked the beginning of his fulfilling the commitment made by the previous Lawudo Lama to establish some form of school for the local Sherpa children. “

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.

Lame Yeshe, Lama Zopa and the Injis

From 1969: Kopan’s Beginning by Adele Hulse, Big Love author:

Titles are something of a feature in the Tibetan Buddhist tradition. Zina and her friends had always called Thubten Yeshe and Zopa Rinpoche “Lama Yeshe” and “Lama Zopa.” The Westerners who gathered around them did the same, though they also called Lama Zopa by his title, “Rinpoche.” To Tibetans, however, they were still Thubten Yeshe and Zopa Rinpoche. As neither monk had received a geshe degree, one title by which they were not addressed was “Geshe-la,” though a few people did refer to Lama Yeshe this way.

Zina ran the house. She was “mother.” Most days at Kopan passed with just Zina, Jan, Robbie, Randy and Piero sitting around talking with the lamas when they were not doing their practices. Lama Yeshe began giving classes twice a week, on Sundays and Wednesdays. A daily schedule was posted outside his room indicating when he was free for interviews, which were translated by Rinpoche. Piero Cerri put his name down for every day of the week.

Staying at Kopan wasn’t all sweetness and light. Piero bravely produced daily lists of his meditation problems while Jan and Randy fought—often. Lama Yeshe would calm everyone down over and over again.

Everyone who met the two lamas noticed the differences between them. Rinpoche was the impossibly thin ascetic who took forever to bless his food and then ate next to nothing. He happily allowed mosquitoes to bite him as he sat in endless meditation. On the other hand Lama Yeshe was exuberant. He ate heartily, enjoyed everything, and engaged everyone in conversations ranging from gardening to physics. He never appeared to study the texts he knew so well, though people noticed that the lamas’ lights were generally left on all night long.

Both monks had outrageously infectious laughs—waterfalls of unrestrained joy breaking out all over the silent hill late at night as the Injis sat meditating with their sore knees and aching legs, full of their daily miseries. Everyone figured that if the lamas could laugh like that, well, there had to be something to this Buddhadharma.

Lama Yeshe told his students that he had been entrusted with Zopa Rinpoche’s education and care. Sometimes he would interrupt his ascetic student’s meditations, pointing at him and saying, “You’re going to have to teach!” Zopa Rinpoche would beg off, saying nervously, “Please, Lama, no!” This made Lama Yeshe rock with laughter.

Thubten Yeshe had all the time in the world for the crazy Injis and was full of boundless energy for anyone who needed him. When he had time, he still ran around Kathmandu and hung out with Jampa Trinley’s young family.

The psychedelic-loving Injis were fascinated by the lamas and loved to relate details of their wild drug experiences, hoping to coax the monks into talking about their own “magic.”

But on this subject, the lamas remained disappointingly silent. Everyone thought they could read others’ minds like a book but that they just wouldn’t say so. Once Randy said, “Come on, Lama, astral traveling and all this stuff can’t really be true!” Lama Yeshe gave his usual teasing reply: “Everything is possible, dear.”

 

 

Jan Willis and the Solicks

From 1969: Kopan’s Beginning by Adele Hulse, Big Love author:

In late October three more Americans walked into Kopan. They were Jan Willis, an African-American political activist majoring in philosophy, her best friend, Randy, and Randy’s husband, Robbie Solick. Jan had won a scholarship to study in Varanasi for a year, the only Westerner and the only woman in a class with seven Thai monks. Jan had been to India before. She had attended a Buddhist education program at the university in Varanasi and had gone on to Nepal, where she had made friends with a Tibetan monk, Losang Chonjor, who lived at Samten Ling Monastery in Boudhanath. Subsequently, they kept in touch through letters.

Jan had grown up in a deeply segregated South in the United States. The Ku Klux Klan had burned a cross in front of her family’s home in Alabama when she was accepted to college. A brilliant young student at Cornell, she had come in contact with the Black Panthers, a militant American political movement demanding equality for black citizens. She had considered joining them, but a factional division within the Panthers had led to her deciding to go to Europe and India with the Solicks instead.

In Varanasi, Arthur Mandelbaum, who had been studying with Nyingma lamas in India for seven years, told Jan and the Solicks of a Lama Yeshe, and said that he lived on a hill called Kopan beyond Boudhanath, on the way to Urgyen Tulku’s gompa. Upon hearing that name, “all the hairs on my skin gently stood erect,” Jan later recalled. Their travel plans had included a trip to Nepal. Arriving at Samten Ling Jan had asked for her friend Losang Chonjor, only to learn that he was away but that she was expected and could stay in his room. Samten Ling was now home to forty Tibetan and ten Mongolian monks—and Jan Willis. She asked the monks about the high lamas in the area. The kitchen monk took her outside, pointed up the hill, and said, “Thubten Yeshe.” It was the second time she had heard that name and once again she felt a tingling sensation at hearing it. That same day Jan went into Kathmandu and picked up the Solicks from their hotel. They took a taxi back out to Boudha stupa and then walked up to Kopan together.

Jan Willis: “It was a beautiful day to walk through the rice paddies. The only person at home when we arrived was Zina. She said there were only four people living there at the time: herself, the lamas, and a young cook. She invited us into her big room with thick, cushy wall-to-wall white carpet, and we chatted about America. When we asked to see Thubten Yeshe, she told us he was too busy to see us. Then she served us a wonderful vegetarian meal at a round brick outdoor table.

“We said goodbye while it was still light and started to depart. Just as we were turning the corner of the building, we saw a door at the far end open a little and a hand beckon us inside, followed by a face peering out…to check that Zina hadn’t seen. The three of us tiptoed into this tiny little room containing only two beds and a table. And so we met Thubten Yeshe and the thinnest monk I have ever seen. Thubten Yeshe managed the conversation pretty well with help from Zopa Rinpoche, who was already advanced in philosophical and technical psychological terms and eager to increase his vocabulary.

“We said that we were looking for a teacher. Thubten Yeshe replied, ‘I am so happy you made it here safely and have already had some training in meditation.’ That really blew us away. We had not told him that we had just had our first meditation classes in Bodhgaya or that just before leaving Europe we had had a very lucky escape from a serious road accident. We all felt that somehow he seemed to know everything already. He told us we could come back and study with him and that Zina would see to our accommodation.”

Jan decided to stay on at Samten Ling and study Tibetan language. The next day Robbie and Randy moved into one-half of a nearby house on the back side of Kopan hill belonging to a local Nepali farmer, Laxman Bahadur, cousin of Ram Bahadur, who later also rented his house out to Injis visiting Kopan. The Solicks stayed at Laxman’s house for almost a year.

Lama Yeshe Sees a Doctor

From 1969: Kopan’s Beginning by Adele Hulse, Big Love author:

Around this time Lama Yeshe told Judy Weitzner that he suffered from heart trouble. What? This vigorous young man who had leapt up the path to Lawudo? Judy had noticed his shortness of breath in the mountains but she had blamed it on the altitude. Max had even fainted up there. More worrying, though, were his constant nosebleeds and bouts of vomiting.

Zina took him to the hospital in Kathmandu where tests revealed a serious heart condition. The doctors told her that there was not much they could do about it. He also seemed to be unusually full of water, spitting a lot and bursting out with huge wet sneezes. He didn’t talk much about his heart, but he occasionally pointed to the deep scar on his cheek from the abscess he had had at Sera. He mentioned again how kind the Chinese nurse had been in the clinic he had attended. No one ever heard Thubten Yeshe say a bad word about any Chinese individual.

Life for the little group went on, Zopa Rinpoche bent over his texts day and night, Lama Yeshe scuttling around Kathmandu making friends.

Judy Weitzner: “One time Max and I went to the American Commissary store and bought some marshmallows. We drove out into the countryside with the lamas and handed them around to some village children. They had never seen anything like them in their lives and just stared in amazement. We had to demonstrate that they really could be eaten!

“We enjoyed lots of picnics with the lamas. They were clearly there for us Westerners, even though there were very few of us around with good visas and enough time to spend with them. But we were able to see Lama Yeshe and Lama Zopa whenever we wanted to. I related to them more as wonderful friends than as gurus. Lama Yeshe really spoke very little English. He called us all ‘dear’ and exuded this wonderful light. He’d say, ‘Don’t worry,’ and ‘Be happy’ and was always eager to learn more words. Looking back, I think I got as much out of him then as when he spoke English fluently.”

Moving to Kopan

From 1969: Kopan’s Beginning by Adele Hulse, Big Love author:

Around July the lamas moved into Kopan, where Zina gave them a small dark room with two small beds at the side of the house. There was just enough room for Losang Nyima to sleep on the floor. Once again, their food was awful. The monks accepted it all.

Clive Giboire visited them there. Later, he recalled, “I must confess that I was shocked to find the lamas stuck away in such a tiny room at the back of the house when Zina had this rather grand boudoir kitted out in white carpet and a leopard-skin bedspread.

“There were times you felt like cursing Zina. You would lend her some book you treasured and it would come back underlined in red all over the place, pages missing and coffee spilt all over it. But that was Zina. You couldn’t really get angry with her…that would have been useless. By and large she was a true friend. You didn’t lose her. She was friends with everybody and yet nobody in particular. She got along well with Boris Lissanevitch. He had danced with the Ballet Russe de Monte Carlo before arriving in Kathmandu and opening the luxurious Hotel Yak and Yeti. They were both café society people and understood each other’s worlds.

“Initially, Kopan was a bit like the Villa Altomont revisited—a beautiful environment, people coming and going, and ‘her lamas’ tucked away there. When I first met Zina, Conrad Rooks was still very much a presence. Without his small monthly allowance she would have been on skid row. She was always rushing to the Rastra Bank or the Nepal Bank to see if he’d sent her a bit.”

Every so often Zina would go to Calcutta to sell something—jewelry, silver and such. She was an experienced hustler. On one of these trips she ran into her old translator, Jampa Gyaltsen Mutugtsang. “I had a restaurant in Sarnath then,” he said. “She was alone, without her daughter. I was very surprised to see that she was a nun. She told me she wanted my help to find Hindi, Nepali and Tibetan translators for a big project she was starting up in Nepal.”

After the trek Max had begun to study the lamas’ teachings. She had agreed to help finance a gompa for Lawudo and continued to support the lamas, which included paying for English lessons. She was utterly devoted to Lama Yeshe, but there was constant tension between her and Zina. Time and strikingly different circumstances had not taken the edge off their old competitiveness. They were both used to being the center of attention.

 

An Important Statue

From 1969: Kopan’s Beginning by Adele Hulse, Big Love author:

After returning from Lawudo…

One day Max told Judy she had seen an exquisite but very expensive statue that she just had to have. She was short of money at the time but bought it anyway. Wanting to know what it was, she invited the lamas to come over one Sunday and examine it. They arrived around mid-morning.

Judy Weitzner: “So that was how I met them; Zina was the queen bee and the lamas were like her exotic pets. They said the statue looked pretty good, but to really know they had to do a special puja to open it up and see what it was filled with—the mantras and precious gems and other things. We didn’t even know what a puja was. I’d only just learned the Tibetans didn’t think it was cool to use offering bowls as wine cups. Tibetan antiques were all just decorator items to us.

“Lama Yeshe said they needed all this special equipment for the puja, but somehow they looked around the apartment and found everything they needed stashed in fireplaces or being used as ashtrays and such. The lamas were quite skillful and sweet about prompting us to take care of ritual and holy objects in a more reverent way. They went down to Max’s bedroom, which was on the floor below the living room and relatively quiet, to do the puja.

“While they did their thing, we began to have a party. Chip and I had the latest Beatles record that we took with us everywhere that there was a phonograph, because we didn’t have one. So we played that record and danced around and had a great time. Some of us went up to the roof garden to smoke dope and take in the fabulous view. After a while, we settled into the low couches in the living room and began sharing our travel stories. We forgot all about the lamas downstairs.

“But as the afternoon progressed, I began to feel quite queasy and uncomfortable. Though it was a warm day I began to shiver and noticed goose bumps on my arms. Finally, I told the others I felt weird, that maybe I was coming down with something. Then Zina said, ‘I feel strange, too.’ Max, Chip, Jacqueline, and whoever else was there, they said they all felt strange as well. Suddenly, we’re all saying, ‘What’s going on here?’ In the now quiet room I became aware of the sounds of the bells and the tap-tap-tap of the damarus (double-headed hand drums) coming from the room below us. A palpable energy was emanating from down there. We all felt it. At that time we would probably have called such an experience psychedelic, but this was beyond anything I had ever experienced. A shimmering pervaded the entire room and went right through our bodies.

“We all went downstairs to find that the lamas had just completed re-empowering the statue, after taking out all the stuff that was inside it and putting it back. The puja was over. The statue was sitting on the makeshift altar, with Lama Yeshe and Lama Zopa sitting facing it. They both looked very joyous.

“The lamas told us it was a very, very old statue containing relics from the Buddha before Shakyamuni Buddha and that it was priceless. Of course, Max was just thrilled. We sat in a semi-circle facing the statue, and it became clear to us that all this shimmering energy was coming from the statue itself. The structure of my reality was eroding very quickly. I did not believe that objects could have power; I thought that the only power came from our minds. But there we all were, basking in this shimmering light energy. I felt immense love for everyone in the room. This statue had been venerated for hundreds of years and had become a repository of spiritual energy that we could all feel.

“We began talking about how we wanted to live our lives from this moment on. Zina began talking about finding a place where artists, musicians, poets and writers could come and work and learn meditation from the lamas. In a moment of deep honesty she said she had created a lot of bad karma in her life and felt she needed to work hard to change things for the better. This place would be her contribution. It was an inspiring idea and we all shared our vision of what such a center could be like. Lama Zopa listened to everyone and then exclaimed with great enthusiasm, ‘And everything is going to be perfect!’ That was the day the idea for what would become Kopan was born.

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