Big Love: The Life and Teachings of Lama Yeshe

By Adele Hulse

Excerpts from Big Love, the forthcoming biography of Lama Thubten Yeshe. This book has been over twenty years in the making, from the early beginnings of author Adele Hulse’s personal notes, to the fully designed, researched and edited chronicle that will be the finished product. We are now looking at a 2019 publication date for Big Love.

Find out how you can support this project here.

Lama Yeshe in Vancouver botanical gardens, 1978. Photo courtesy Pam Cowan.
Big Love: Foreword by Lama Zopa Rinpoche

The subject of Lama contains the four noble truths as the foundation, then the Mahayana path, the five paths and ten bhumis; it also contains the two stages of the tantric path—the gross generation stage, the subtle generation stage and the five completion stages. That is what Lama achieved.

That includes the entire Buddhist philosophy: how to achieve liberation, how to achieve enlightenment and how to liberate others. We need to achieve all these paths to be perfectly qualified so that we can liberate numberless hell beings, numberless hungry ghosts, numberless animals, numberless human beings, suras, asuras, intermediate state beings; so that without making the slightest mistake we can liberate perfectly every being in each realm from the oceans of suffering and bring them perfectly into full enlightenment. That’s according to the texts—the hundred-plus volumes of the Buddha’s teachings, the Kangyur, which was translated into Tibetan from the Sanskrit and Pali; the two hundred-plus volumes of the Tengyur; and the commentaries by those great pandits and yogis of sutra and tantra, the great scholars, the fully enlightened beings and the Tibetan lamas, including Lama Tsongkhapa.

I heard certain things about Lama that ordinary people haven’t heard and don’t know, such as the things Lama discussed with Gen Jampa Wangdu, the great meditator and Lama’s best friend. Every time we went to Dharamsala, Lama would talk with him. Gen Jampa Wangdu did not talk much about his life story; he didn’t say, “Oh, I have this realization or that realization,” but he was somebody who had great success in the path.

Life in the great monasteries in Tibet was very strict. The main thing was to learn the Buddha’s teachings as deeply as possible until you had profound understanding, correct realization and were perfectly qualified and able to practice without making any mistakes. After studying at these monasteries you went to tantric college to study the tantric teachings very extensively, including all the meaning behind the mandalas, rituals, tunes and art. Then you were eligible to become an abbot, a lama, and after some time even rise to one of the very high positions, such as that of Ganden Tripa, the regent of Lama Tsongkhapa, who is qualified to sit on Lama Tsongkhapa’s throne in Ganden Monastery; you became fully qualified to preserve and spread the Buddhadharma.

While you were studying you were not allowed to go to different places and take initiations and teachings from different lamas, because there was danger that you might leave the monastery and not continue the extensive studies. It was very strict.

When Kyabje Trijang Rinpoche, who was Lama’s root guru, was giving a commentary on the Guru Puja at Tsechokling Monastery, near Lhasa, Lama Yeshe and Gen Jampa Wangdu both attended. When the teachings were given on impermanence, renunciation and so forth, Lama didn’t think about those preliminaries, but when it came to bodhicitta, Lama thought, “This is the real teaching.” And, of course, there was the teaching on emptiness as well. The extensive guru yoga is the highest tantric teaching and by practicing this you can attain enlightenment in one brief lifetime of this degenerate time. So it is an unbelievable teaching.

After these teachings Gen Jampa Wangdu totally changed his life, became fully renounced and then left the monastery. Later, in exile in Dalhousie, India, he did the preliminary practices (jor chö) all day long and achieved calm abiding under the guidance of Gyüpa Rinpoche, a great yogi from Drepung Monastery. Gen Jampa Wangdu told me himself that, “Even if you believe you are doing good meditation, it is not really perfect meditation until you have achieved calm abiding.” He said that from his own experience, kind of showing that he had that realization, that he had experienced calm abiding.

After Dalhousie he moved to Dharamsala, where he spent many years and achieved bodhicitta. One night he came to see us and just in conversation he said that he never told other people about his attainments. He also said that for seven years he had never been in anybody’s house for his own purpose. That did not mean that he never visited other people’s houses. Rather, it meant that he never went for his own benefit, for his own happiness, because he had realized bodhicitta seven years previously.

The first time I took mahamudra commentary from Geshe Rabten Rinpoche he told me that Gen Jampa Wangdu was very important and had actualized emptiness, and said, “If you have any questions to discuss with him, he has this fresh experience.”

Later, Gen Jampa Wangdu achieved the illusory body and the realization of clear light. Once, after we had received the Six Yogas of Naropa teaching from His Holiness the Dalai Lama, we met together and discussed it with each other. That’s when Gen Jampa Wangdu told us of his experience. I took teachings from him after Lama passed away. Not long after that His Holiness was giving a lamrim commentary. On the last day there were still a few pages of the oral transmission left, with a long-life puja to follow, but that morning Gen Jampa Wangdu passed away, so I did not go to the puja and instead went to see Gen-la, who was in the meditation state.

Lama told his very close friend that he had realized emptiness while debating in Tibet. He used to say that. I think that happened with many monks while they were studying, thinking and reflecting very deeply, very incisively.

Lama had attainment of the generation stage and then the clear light and the illusory body. Sometimes when Lama was out I would check to see what text Lama was reading, just with a curious mind. When we first came to Nepal we stayed at the Samten Ling monastery, and then for a while in a green house belonging to a son of the Chini Lama, who took care of the Boudhanath Stupa. Even then, so many years ago, Lama was reading only completion stage texts.

At that time a Sherpa man came to see us and gave me a most elaborate text on thought transformation written by Kachen Yeshe Gyaltsen, a great lama who was like the rising sun. He also offered Lama a Heruka commentary on the generation and completion stages. Lama was reading the completion stage text. I often used to spy on Lama to see what texts he was reading, even in the United States.

Lama did not show that he was a meditator. He was a great, hidden yogi. He would do a session in the daytime after lunch, when he would lie down and rest for at least an hour and a half. He appeared to be resting because of his heart condition but actually he was doing a meditation session on the clear light. He also did this at night. When Lama was at Kopan people were not allowed to make a noise when he was taking his rest because in reality he was meditating on the clear light.

One day Lama’s friend Jampa Trinley, the father of Yangsi Rinpoche and Tsen-la, came to Kopan and Lama missed his afternoon rest. Afterwards he acted as if he had lost a million, billion dollars. He was so sorry. “Ah, I did not take my rest!” But it was not that he was just missing sleep; if that had been the case he would not have expressed it like that. During those times Lama would take his afternoon rest in a small brick house that had been built on top of the Kopan hill by a German student. Lama told me that on one of those occasions a protector offered him a heart. When yogis have high realizations of the tantric path, protectors become their servants.

Lama had such high attainments but never showed people. What he showed externally depended on who he was with. If he was with business people, he would appear like them; when he was with children he behaved like they did and played with them. He manifested exactly according to whatever kind of people he was with. When you do that, it makes everybody happy. It is very skillful. In reality, it is buddha nature manifesting to and guiding sentient beings. Buddhas manifest to pretas as pretas and guide them in that form; they manifest as animals and nagas to benefit those beings. Buddhas can appear in the form of children, beggars, rich people, kings and even spirits. Just because you see an ordinary being does not mean that person is not a buddha. When you’re in the street you can’t really tell who is a buddha and who is not. Buddhas are everywhere. It is amazing, unbelievable. Lama manifested in such ways.

For many years Lama used to read all sorts of texts and practice and write every day; he gave teachings late at night and offered advice to all those students who had problems. Late at night Lama would dictate twenty letters or more to his secretary. Big piles of letters.

Lama was not only the guru showing the path, he was also like a father looking after his students’ lives, correcting their behavior, giving advice and happiness. Not only did Lama show the path to enlightenment; like a parent, he was everything to his students.

Besides meeting students, Lama would rise at dawn, check the food for the monks at Kopan and water the vegetables and flowers in the garden. Lama did a lot of gardening both at Kopan and at Tushita, in Dharamsala. Then suddenly, he would go and wash the dogs. I don’t remember, but I think I tried to do that once. Lama was always so busy but still found time for everything. Without missing his practice, the six daily sessions, he always took care of others—his dogs, people, monks and Western students. Lama could do many things in one day. The ability to do that is an attainment. Of course, attainment is an incredible thing. Attainment is not easy. You need patience and continuity of practice over many lifetimes.

It is an extremely rare thing to complete not only the three principal aspects of the path but also the two stages of tantra. While Lama was studying and progressing, the other challenge, the really wonderful thing, was Lama’s capacity to increase his practice and do all those other things at the same time. Lama was not living in a mountain cave doing nothing, not seeing people and just doing his practice. Of course, many people do that, but Lama did everything while traveling, guiding others, teaching and giving public talks in cities all over the world.

At the beginning, His Holiness did not have awards such as the Nobel Peace Prize or the Congressional Gold Medal. Dharma was not well-known in the West back then. But slowly, slowly, Westerners heard Dharma teachings for the first time. At that time, many people’s first question was, “Do you know Lobsang Rampa?” I was there, so I remember.

Winning an Olympic medal is nothing, even though athletes spend decades of their life training for that. But it is nothing. For Lama, the first thing was to receive attainments and the next was to be able to do everything.

In the early days, whenever Lama gave a public talk it was the first time many in the audience had ever seen or heard a Tibetan lama. Since then His Holiness the Dalai Lama has been to many countries and now has a great reputation and has received many awards. Thanks to many other lamas as well, there are now many Buddhists in the West, but back then, for many people it was the first time to hear the teachings and they came out of curiosity, to see what a Tibetan lama was. But within an hour and a half, wow! Lama touched so many people. Lama’s special way was not like other people, no question.

Whenever I had to give a talk I would prepare some kind of outline ahead of time, but because there were all kinds of people in attendance—educated, uneducated, young, old—Lama would give his talk in bits and pieces so that everybody would get something useful for their life. People would say that when they went back home they felt as if their feet were not touching the ground and they had a feeling of peace and happiness in their heart. In that short a time, this Tibetan lama would introduce them to the warm-heartedness, compassion and wisdom of the Dharma. In this way they would get a very favorable impression of what a Tibetan lama was, and they would already begin taking refuge in Dharma and Sangha in their heart. After that, refuge in Buddha would come slowly. During that hour and a half, due to Lama’s skillful aspect, teaching with laughter, humor and joy, refuge would begin to grow in their heart. It was incredible.

Because Lama was a bodhisattva, even when Lama would say something in an ordinary way, laugh or make a joke, others would feel great happiness in their mind. Somebody might think, “Oh, that doesn’t have much meaning,” but the reality is that just a few words and a laugh from Lama was of great benefit for some people. Their heart would totally transform from the depression or whatever else was making their life unhappy. That is how buddhas and bodhisattvas guide sentient beings.

Lama’s skill and capacity, which grew continuously without degenerating, was most unbelievable. He was able to do all these other things, and that showed his real capacity. Lama’s particular skill was to know exactly what was needed right at that particular time, so even with just a smile or a few words he made others happy and gave them hope.

After Lama passed away, many more Tibetan geshes came to the West and then realized it is not easy to teach Westerners. More and more they realized that Lama had some special capacity, that Lama was special in guiding sentient beings, especially in bringing Dharma teachings to the West.

Whatever Lama did was purely for other sentient beings. Many times a day he would say, “I’m resting and eating this food, but not for my pleasure. It is for others.” Lama used to ask me to eat more food. It was very normal for Lama to say, “I’m not doing this for my pleasure.” He often said that, thus expressing bodhicitta. It looks kind of simple but is actually a very high level of mind.

One time in Delhi, in reference to a particular male student, Lama told me he never got angry with sentient beings. When Lama showed a wrathful aspect, that’s all he was doing: just showing a wrathful aspect. He was not angry. It is not easy to be like that.

A couple of months prior to Lama’s passing away he was resting in a farmhouse in Delhi. His Holiness was asked whether or not Lama should have an operation in the West. His Holiness said to do the operation. Lama said, “It does not matter if the operation is unsuccessful because I have used my life enough as a servant for sentient beings. So I don’t care whether it is successful or not.” Lama had no fear of dying and was fully satisfied with how his life had been spent, serving others. That is a great teaching, a great example for students to follow.

The conclusion is not to waste this precious human life, to continue your own practices and develop your heart in the path to enlightenment for the sake of sentient beings, and on that basis to serve and help sentient beings, and offer the teachings of the Buddha wherever you can—in other words, to develop compassion and wisdom, and then benefit others as much as possible.

There were not that many centers during Lama’s time, but every year more and more are established. This is Lama’s blessing, Lama’s prayer, the result of Lama’s activity.

When I’m at the centers, I first speak about the kindness of His Holiness the Dalai Lama; then I mention that even though the people there may not have met Lama, every single thing they learn by coming to the center is due to his kindness, as is every single karma they purify and every single merit they create. By reading the lamrim prayer every day they become closer to the path of liberation and enlightenment and therefore closer to liberating all sentient beings.

All who meet Dharma do so because of the kindness of His Holiness the Dalai Lama and those who meet the Dharma by coming to an FPMT center do so because of the kindness of Lama Yeshe. Even though center students may not have met Lama, they learn from the resident teachers; all their education happened because of Lama Yeshe. Therefore they, and we, are all being guided by Lama Yeshe.