Bodhgaya is where the Buddha reached enlightenment sitting under the Bodhi tree (Ficus religiosa). The enormous Bodhi tree there today is not the original tree under which the Buddha sat but a direct descendant of that tree. In the third century b.c. the great Emperor Ashoka, the first Buddhist ruler of India, sent his daughter to Sri Lanka with a sapling of the original Bodhi tree, where it was planted and still flourishes today. A descendent of the sapling from Sri Lanka was planted in Bodhgaya sometime around the seventh century and still marks the spot beside the western face of the great Mahabodhi Stupa where the Buddha reached his goal.
Lama Zopa Rinpoche’s ordination
It was time for His Holiness the Dalai Lama’s annual January teachings at Bodhgaya. Years later, Lama Zopa Rinpoche recounted his visit there that year: “I went to Bodhgaya alone from Kathmandu and took a red thermos to sell in case I needed money. I couldn’t find any room to stay in so I had to stay at the Hotel Ashok, which was the most expensive, so I finished all my money quickly. In the room next door were some Dutch people whom I asked for a loan. They just gave me some money and that helped until I found a room at the Tourist Bungalow. Soon after I got a room at the monastery I shared with a Mongolian monk who was an abbot. I sold the red thermos to him, but he had a watch for sale so I bought that and still had a little money left. Later when Lama Yeshe came, he said I paid too much for the watch, so we went to see the Mongolian monk and asked for some of the money back. We eventually got some back.
“I took gelong ordination from Kyabjé Ling Rinpoche during this time. The ordination happened during His Holiness Ling Rinpoche’s Lam-rim Chenmo teachings. Also helping in the ordination was His Holiness Serkong Tsenshab Rinpoche, who was one of the two lob-pons. The umze [chant leader] at the Bodhgaya monastery at that time also attended, acting as the ‘preceptor revealing the secret.’ That person takes you outside and asks you twenty questions—if you have or have had any diseases and so on. You have to consider this person to be your teacher and I did. I saw Gonsar Rinpoche in Bodhgaya and he said to me, ‘When you take ordination, at that time you are very pure, so it is important to do as much virtue as you can while your vows are so pure.’”
The Bodhgaya teachings
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, 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 so 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 meditation1 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, who was unwell and taught while lying down. Next, they all received an initiation2 of the highest yoga tantra deity Yamantaka.3 This was followed by a three-week teaching (in Tibetan) from Kyabjé Ling Rinpoche. The Westerners did not understand a word because there was no translation.
Sylvia White was getting bored. Zopa Rinpoche warned her not to swing her long zen, or upper robe, about so much “because the spirits are all around and you can knock them over when you do that. I can see it and they don’t like it.”
“Oh, sure! If they’re made of air, what does it matter if a little more air goes through them,” she shot back.
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 his own English was not good enough and only Zopa Rinpoche could deliver such a course. Thinking of Goenka’s success, Zina suggested a ten-day course, but Rinpoche insisted ten days wasn’t nearly enough time to teach anything and 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 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 you are rich?”
The Inji students, eager for teachings in English, were happy to hear 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. 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, planned to go to Dalhousie to join his friend in studying with Geshe Dhargyey. 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, 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 his English was poor would be generous. 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 growing within me at that very moment. Besides being so warm and clear, Lama was also very humorous. This endeared him to me immediately.”
A young Zen monk, Zengo, was teaching in English at the Burmese Vihar and Zopa Rinpoche attended one of his guided meditations for Westerners. “The way I heard it, he made no distinction between sleep and meditation,” Rinpoche later commented. “His explanation of meditation was like some dark sleep, where there is unconsciousness with no awareness of any object. Zengo told his students, ‘Stop thinking—this is dharmakaya.4 Obviously Rinpoche didn’t think this was so. “Even though the monks in Tibetan monasteries study and think about the path all day long, they don’t call that meditation,” he added.
Zengo had a Canadian student, Mark Shaneman, who attended Lama Yeshe’s talk. “I had my foot propped up on a statue when he came in and he told me to remove it and sit up straight. Then he said, ‘Some people hear the Dharma and it doesn’t mean very much. Others hear it and like a skyrocket they go verrrrrry high!’ I thought maybe I should follow this guy. I found him with Lama Zopa at the Tibetan temple and asked if I could be their disciple. Lama Zopa laughed hysterically, but Lama Yeshe invited me to Kopan. Once there, he asked me to come to him for private lessons once a week. The first thing he taught me was the nine-round breathing meditation.5 In my second lesson he said I should meditate on my penis, long enough to make it move.”
Kopan, Zengo and buying land
Back at Kopan, Ann McNeil was now known as Anila Ann to indicate she was now ordained.6 She felt very much at home in her new robes. Sylvia White, on the other hand, hardly ever wore hers. “Lama Yeshe said he wasn’t cross with me as long as I still showed respect,” said Sylvia. “But I was terribly sexual and really, robes just weren’t for me. I soon disrobed and a few months later left for Los Angeles. ‘Los Angeles!’ said Lama Yeshe when I told him. ‘That’s the capital of samsara! There is no place more illusionary than Los Angeles.’”
Max wore her robes all the time. She continued to provide for the lamas’ needs and Lama Yeshe now spent about half the week at the Rana house at Tintuli, one room of which Max had decorated as a shrine room for her statues. “At least they’re not in the fireplace any more!” Zopa Rinpoche commented.
When Lama Yeshe gave Max an initiation into the female buddha known as Tara,7 Rinpoche presented her with a thangka he had painted in honor of the day. When Lama finished reading the initiation text in Tibetan, something quite incredible happened. “He gave a loud clap,” said Max. “I had this huge vase of flowers on a round table in the corner, with lilies and all sorts of things. When Lama clapped that vase of flowers burst into flames. They were on fire in that big vase of water. I swear it. I should have taken a photograph. Then he gave me my first mala. He said he got it from Ngawang Samten, Rinpoche’s sister. I just couldn’t believe any of it but figured he had to be making miracles constantly, otherwise Kopan would have ended in disaster several times already. So these burning flowers were just something else too incredible to think about. I was stupid, too. I didn’t know what power was. None of us knew what we were doing.”
While in Bodhgaya, Zina had found Zengo very interesting and invited him to teach a ten-day course at Kopan. He was a very young monk with a strict, tough style and tended to quote popular Zen koans such as, “If you see the Buddha on the road, kill him.” Zengo’s party line was, “If the guru says black is white, then black is white.” On the other hand, Lama Yeshe took the opposite line: “You should think about things. You should check up. Don’t just believe. Check up.” Zengo was Zina’s guest, but Lama did not want the students to be swept off their feet. Enlightenment was not going to happen overnight, he told them. There was work to be done.
Lama Yeshe’s thoughts about the spiritual teacher:
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.8
Zengo conducted very precise walking meditation classes and insisted everyone work at pulling weeds in the garden between classes. By this time, using funds that had been donated by a group of students, Lama Yeshe had managed to buy a block of land right on top of the hill. His students suggested that instead of pulling weeds, it might be more useful if they started digging foundations. Lama Yeshe instructed them to start digging right at the boundary line. He wasn’t going to waste one inch of land.
Lama bought as much land as he could at Kopan. The very first piece was some steeply terraced rice paddies on the back side of the hill. Next came the plot on top, the first land on which they could actually build. In the delicate business of negotiating the purchase of farmland, Lama Yeshe found the perfect go-between in an elderly Nepalese man, a devout Hindu who lived with his wife in a mud hut at the foot of the hill. They owned one cow. Everyone called him Chowkidhar, the Nepali word for caretaker, which Lama pronounced “chowkidhara.” Chowkidhar became Lama Yeshe’s life-long friend.
Åge Delbanco produced some drawings to show how the new building might look when completed. Jampa Trinley donated bricks from a building he had demolished in Kathmandu. These were piled up at the bottom of the hill and it fell to Anila Ann to hire Nepalese coolies to carry them up and stack them. A barbed wire fence was built around the bricks to protect them. In Nepal, given the right circumstances, anything of value disappeared in a flash.
The first Kopan meditation course
Zina was still eager for Lama Yeshe to teach a course, but he refused. She turned to 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.’ 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).9 In those days, the only substantial book on Dharma available in English was Herbert Guenther’s translation of Gampopa’s Jewel Ornament of Liberation, which was first published in 1959.10 “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. 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 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. 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.11
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 Drölma, 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 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 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.
A few weeks after the course, Max took Lama Yeshe to Dharamsala to attend teachings by Geshe Rabten. Mark Shaneman also went and met Max for the first time, because she avoided Kopan. “Zina once complained to Lama Yeshe that he seemed to love Max more than her,” said Mark. “He pounced on that right away, saying, ‘Listen, I love all sentient beings equally. There is no loving one more than another!’
“With Lama’s support I decided to become a monk. Lama organized all the details of my ordination,” Mark continued. “During the ceremony I had to repeat the refuge prayer three times. The first time I said it, Lama Yeshe snickered. The second time he giggled and the third time he just howled with laughter. Here I was trying to be very serious at my big ordination and my guru is crying with laughter. All the other monks there cracked up, too. I couldn’t work it out. Lama finally explained that what I’d said in my weird Tibetan accent was ‘I take refuge in yogurt’! When Lama and Max left for Delhi, I went into retreat. I was a monk and had a new name, Jhampa Zangpo.” Max provided for Mark’s robes and six months’ accommodation for him with a Tibetan family.
When Lama Yeshe returned to Kopan, he continued to teach twice a week and take care of Zopa Rinpoche. Like a mother, he made sure Rinpoche was warm, ate enough and kept clean. Tibetans and Sherpas didn’t have much interest in washing but Lama Yeshe did. Rinpoche meditated and studied throughout the night. He seemed oblivious to anything else unless someone stepped on an ant or some other tiny creature, whereupon he immediately offered up prayers not only for the ant but also for the person who had so unthinkingly extinguished life. He happily shared his room with mice, allowing them to eat the altar offerings and make nests.
Piero and Claudio’s friend, Massimo Corona, began attending Lama Yeshe’s classes. “As soon as Lama started talking, I felt it was all about me—about my mind, my problems, my hopes, faults and dreams. I thought, my God, this is my teacher!” said Massimo. He went back down to Kathmandu and told his American girlfriend, Carol Chaney, all about it. A few days later he asked to have an interview with Lama Yeshe.
Massimo Corona: “They brought me into Lama’s little room, which was very plain and empty, and introduced me as a friend of Piero’s. ‘Ho! Piero!’ said Lama and laughed for five minutes. Then he said, ‘You want to take teaching?’ I said I did. ‘Well, remember, this is not a path for curiosity, this is a path for permanence.’
“A few days later I went back to ask him a personal question, but Zina, ‘the boss,’ wouldn’t let me see him. That woman was too much. I eventually got past her and asked him my all-important question, which was, ‘Lama, you say we must always be watching our mind, but who is doing the watching?’ He took one offering bowl of water and poured it into an empty glass. Then he took another bowl of water and poured that into the glass, too. Then he said, ‘Now there are two waters—can you tell the difference?’ I got such a flash of insight I couldn’t think of a thing to say. Practically every word Lama Yeshe said had an incredible impact on me.
“Zina’s daughter, Rhea, was still living with her grandmother in Kathmandu and Lama often went to see her. I lived in Boudha and sometimes we took the mini-bus together. On our way there one day Lama sighed and said, ‘Rich people, so much suffering.’
“He was always moving between Max’s house and Kopan, while Rinpoche stayed mainly at Kopan. Once when I met Lama near the tea shop on the road, I was shocked to see him pick up a stone and threaten to hurl it at a pack of dogs barking at us. ‘These dogs can be very dangerous, dear,’ he said. It didn’t bother him what I thought.
“In class one Sunday he said sex was dirty. Zina cornered him afterwards and told him he shouldn’t say that. ‘Oh yes?’ he said. The following week the talk was all about sex being dirty and ugly, unless it was done with the compassionate bodhicitta attitude.”
The hippie view of the time that “free sex” was essentially liberating didn’t wash with Lama Yeshe. Were animals liberated by free sex? The act, he said, was only transformed by an altruistic mind, in which one’s primary concern is for the happiness of others rather than the desire to achieve a brief physical relief.
From Lama Yeshe’s teachings at Istituto Lama Tzong Khapa, Italy:
These days, one of the main reasons that a man and a woman become friends is sexual. They get together for sexual pleasure. In earlier times, marriage had a divine quality—a couple came together out of respect, with the aim of creating a kind of totality. That gave meaning to getting married, and marriages made with such purpose became good ones.
Many of today’s marriages become disastrous because they lack purpose; there’s no worthwhile goal for coming together. A couple should not come together out of grasping at each other; there should be more meaning to it than that. But our craving desire and lack of wisdom work together to create an extreme situation that finishes up causing conflict: the woman agitates her man; the man agitates his woman—in either case, it ends in “goodbye.”
These days, I travel the entire world and many young people come to see me to discuss their relationship problems, but they all boil down to people’s coming together out of the wrong motivation. Whether you’re a man or a woman, it’s important that there’s not too much grasping in your relationship, that you don’t agitate your partner. Extreme grasping at sexual pleasure is a problem; sexual pleasure is an irritant. You can see.
However, many couples aren’t together for the sex. Their relationship is deeper than that, so their attitude is different. They are very comfortable, free somehow, with no tremendous expectations of each other. Therefore, they have a good relationship. I’m sure you’ve seen examples of such couples, where there’s not much grasping.
In my limited experience of the Western world, many Christians, who believe in God, have very respectful marriages. They believe in something deeper than themselves and are not living for sense pleasure alone. I would say that such couples have been blessed by God or Jesus.12
Carol was eight months pregnant when Massimo decided to visit the Sixteenth Gyalwa Karmapa, head of the Kagyu lineage, at his seat in Sikkim. Lama Yeshe warmly bid him farewell. “Gurus were like designer labels,” said Massimo. “All the smart people had Kagyu gurus. No one seemed to have heard of Geshe Rabten, Lama Yeshe or Lama Zopa. Gelug was not ‘in.’ The Karmapa told me to go back to Kathmandu and contact some Kagyu teachers there. Lama Yeshe actually offered to come and translate for me. I began to see that maybe my guru was right under my nose. When our daughter Maitri Dolma was born in Boudhanath on 21 December 1971, I brought her straight to Lama Yeshe for a blessing, with a gift of the best Darjeeling tea I could find.”
Åge had made Kopan his home. Lise Lotte, an old friend from Denmark, came to visit him in May 1971 with her American boyfriend, Chris Kolb. While there, they decided to attend Lama’s class.
“Lise and I were on our way to Mount Kailash13 where I intended to have a Hindu trident put through my tongue,” Chris recounted. “I wanted the power such an initiation could give. In those days I wore shrouds that had been rescued from funeral pyres. All I really owned was a passport, a chillum (hash pipe) and a big lump of hash. Smoking hashish was my daily ritual, psychedelics a monthly Eucharist. I thought selling the best quality hash for the cheapest price the most noble of all professions.
“To get myself in the mood for that first Sunday class I smoked two joints of my very best hash. I sat in this big room, my back against the wall, waiting for something to happen. Three nuns stood nearby clucking at me with disapproval. But I was reverent in my way.
“Then someone said I should stand up because the lama was coming. The door burst open, banged against the wall and Lama Yeshe swept in, radiating health and strength and with a freshly shaved head. He sat on a cushion and began to meditate. Now I had come across a lot of meditators in my time, but none were in the same class as this monk. He was different. He said things like, ‘How things appear is not necessarily how they are, ultimately.’ He obviously had very few English words but I considered myself a good judge and I was immediately hooked. Then he said, ‘At Kopan, I see hippies on the hill. When the sun goes down, they all go, “Oooooh! Beautifullllll!” That is not necessarily Lama’s point of view, because beautiful is momentary. Beautiful is actually ugly because it creates attachment,’ he told us. That made so much sense to me. I could see him watching me out of the corner of his eye. I knew something was happening between us.
“After the talk Max left immediately, taking Lama with her. It was clear she and Zina didn’t hang around together. Zina was very regal, the hostess. Lama Yeshe never lost patience with her, he was always kind. I liked her, too. She was eccentric and you couldn’t be too eccentric for me! Lama had started giving her certain initiations she was very secretive about. I found out she couldn’t type. After swearing me to secrecy, she got me to type up her practices for her. She was doing the Twenty-one Tara practice, but none of it made any sense to me. I didn’t have a clue. I’d never even heard of the Four Noble Truths, but I did make surreptitious copies of her notes.”
“At an interview with Lama Yeshe,” Chris continued, “he taught me a breathing meditation and gave me a mantra I was supposed to say as much as possible. Soon after that, I left to go walking in the Himalayas for a while.”
Building the Lawudo gompa
At the start of the autumn trekking season in 1971 Lama Zopa Rinpoche returned to Lawudo to begin work on the school for Sherpa children. Max gave him enough money to buy materials and pay workers to clear the rocky ground, cut stone, fell trees and dig foundations. This was Lama Zopa’s first experience of handling money, which he kept in a small plastic suitcase. Somehow, whenever the funds had just about run out, fresh donations magically appeared. The work went on while Rinpoche spent hours doing various pujas for the many small insects squashed to death in the construction. Losang Nyima repeatedly flew up to Lukla with building supplies, which then had to be laboriously carried by porters up to Lawudo.
Lama Zopa also sent Losang Nyima and two local Sherpas around the villages to take down the names of boys age six and older who were likely to attend the new school. The plan was that during the winter months, the school would operate out of Kopan. Parents were asked to supply their son’s first set of robes and a monthly contribution in money or goods.
Zopa Rinpoche stayed in Lawudo for two months, supervising the construction, paying the workers and studying the texts that had been collected by his predecessor, the Lawudo Lama. He returned to Kopan leaving Losang Nyima in charge and Anila Ann still in retreat at Lawudo. Many Sherpa families wanted their sons to receive a monastic education, so the lamas asked Kyabjé Trijang Rinpoche to send them a qualified lama who could teach them. Geshe Thubten Tashi, a strong-minded and nationalistic Khampa whom the lamas had known at Buxa, was given the job. He spent a year at Lawudo in Solu Khumbu, thus ensuring the children would know at least one teacher when they came down to Kopan in the winter.
Lama Yeshe’s heart condition
Ann returned to Kopan in September to find Lama Yeshe very unwell. She took him to the emergency department at the Shanti Bhawan hospital in Kathmandu, where doctors confirmed their earlier diagnosis, that Lama had an extremely serious heart condition. The doctors told them that in just a year or two Lama’s breathing would become difficult and he would grow weaker and weaker. “Naturally, this news freaked us all out,” said Ann. “Lama Yeshe, on the other hand, made light of it, which didn’t help matters much. For instance, when we wished him goodnight and said, ‘See you in the morning,’ he’d reply, ‘Yes, well, if I’m not dead tomorrow!’ Oh God, we thought, here we are, starting to build a gompa at Kopan and he’s going to be dead in two years.”
“Poor Lama, poor Lama! Soon he’ll die!” Lama Yeshe said to Åge.
“But you’ll get a good rebirth,” Åge replied.
In her quiet way Max was still paying for everything, but Lama was also looking after Max. “I was in a taxi with him in Kathmandu one day when Lama mentioned he had to take a present to someone,” said Anila Ann. “It turned out to be the wife of an architect Max had been fooling around with before she met the lamas. Lama seemed to spend a lot of time cleaning up after people.”
Still more people began enrolling in Lama Yeshe’s Sunday classes. Among them was Jeffrey Miller, the American who later became known as Lama Surya Das. He had been in the audience almost a year earlier when Lama Yeshe had given his very first public talk at the International Yoga Conference in Delhi in December 1970. “Whenever I had a chat with Lama Yeshe,” Surya Das recalled, “he’d exclaim, ‘You’re too much, boy!’ When I asked him what he thought about masturbation, he gave the same reply, ‘You’re too much, boy!’ He acted as if he’d never heard of it. To most of my questions he’d say, ‘Let’s look into that together.’ I liked that ‘together.’”
Surya Das continued, “Sometimes it seemed his main purpose in life was to ensure Lama Zopa ate enough food and got some sleep. I went to the classes and helped Lama Yeshe with his English. Then I went to Tatopani14 and took two trips of purple mescaline. When I told him about my experiences with it he said again, ‘You’re too much, boy!’ His view of hallucinogens was that meditation could take you there and even further.”
From the teachings of Lama Yeshe:
Q: It seems that to achieve the desired result from meditation, you need a certain kind of environment. What are the implications of this fact for those of us who live in a concrete, noisy, nine-to-five world with little or no contact with others interested in the spiritual path? Do you believe that psychedelics like LSD can be important or useful for people like this?
Lama Yeshe: Well, it’s hard to say. I’ve never taken anything like that. But Buddhist teachings do talk about how material substances affect the human nervous system and the relationship between the nervous system and the mind. We study this kind of thing in Buddhist philosophy. From what I’ve learned, I would say that taking drugs goes against what Buddhism recommends. However, my own point of view is that people who are completely preoccupied with the sense world, with no idea of the possibilities of mental development, can possibly benefit from the drug experience. How? If people whose reality is limited to the meat and bone of this human body have this experience, perhaps they’ll think, “Wow! I thought this physical world was all there is, but now I can see that it’s possible for my mind to develop beyond the constraints of my flesh-and-blood body.” In some cases the drug experience can open up a person’s mind to the possibility of mental development. But once you’ve had that experience, it’s wrong to keep taking hallucinogens because the drug experience is not real understanding; it’s not a proper realization. The mind is still limited because matter itself is so limited; it’s up and down, up and down. Also, if you take too many drugs you can damage your brain. So, that’s just my personal point of view.15
* * *
Lise Lotte, Chris Kolb’s Danish girlfriend, was six months pregnant when Lama Yeshe suggested she and Chris get married, adding that it would be auspicious to take precepts prior to the ceremony. “He gave me a trial run,” said Chris. “First, he asked me, ‘You like to kill things?’ That was an easy one. Then with a twinkle in his eye he asked, ‘But what if someone is coming to Nepal with a big bomb to kill everybody and the only way to stop him is to kill. You would kill him then, wouldn’t you? It is your responsibility.’ I told him in that case I was going to have to kill President Nixon right now. ‘No,’ said Lama. ‘Because if you kill him, who is going to do his job?’
“Then he asked, ‘You like to get intoxicated?’ I said, sure, I do. I smoke dope all the time and I’m going to keep right on smoking dope. ‘Do you become unconscious?’ he said. I asked what he meant. He replied, ‘Does it make you unaware of karma?’ I said it didn’t. ‘Okay, then we’ll do the precepts,’ he said.” This is what Lama Yeshe told Chris, but at different times, Lama Yeshe gave people different advice about using intoxicants.
There is really no such thing as an official Tibetan Buddhist wedding ceremony. Nevertheless, on 3 January 1972 Lama Yeshe greeted Lise and Chris at Kopan with flowers, incense and candles and blessed them. They gave him a hanging mobile they had made out of shells and driftwood. He promptly went into Lama Zopa’s room to show him this gift, leaving the young couple outside to listen to their gales of laughter. But when Lama Yeshe came outside again, they saw he was crying. He did not explain why.
1 Vipassana, commonly called insight or mindfulness meditation, is achieved by training in non-attached observation of the present moment resulting in increased attention and concentration. This meditation practice is typically associated with the Theravadan tradition of south India and southeast Asia. Goenka’s courses run for ten days during which time participants do not speak at all, except with their meditation tutor, but spend the time in sitting and walking meditation, watchful of the four foundations of mindfulness—body, feelings, mind, and phenomena—using the breath as the basis. [Return to text]
2 An initiation, or empowerment, is a transmission received from a tantric master allowing a disciple to engage in the practices of a particular meditational deity. [Return to text]
3 Yamantaka, also known as Vajrabhairava (Skt.) and Dorje Jigjé (Tib.), is a male buffalo-headed meditational deity of the father tantra class of highest yoga tantra. Yamantaka is the wrathful manifestation of Manjushri, the buddha of wisdom. [Return to text]
4 The dharmakaya, the “buddha-body of reality,” refers to the omniscient mind of a fully enlightened being. [Return to text]
5 See Lama Yeshe’s instructions on this practice in chapter. 8. [Return to text]
6 The Tibetan word ani (pronounced anee) can refer to either a nun or one’s father’s sister, while la is a polite suffix. There are many terms for nuns in Tibetan, such as tsunmo, rabjungma, getsulma, and chöe-la, but at this time anila was commonly used. Chöe-la is the term most nuns prefer. [Return to text]
7 Tara (the Savioress) is a female enlightened being. Beloved by all Tibetans, the most common manifestation is Green Tara, who symbolizes enlightened skillful action. [Return to text]
8 Excerpted from Make Your Mind an Ocean, pp. 63–4, 97–8, 100. [Return to text]
9 Preta is the Sanskrit word for hungry ghosts, beings who reside in one of the three lower suffering realms of samsara, according to Buddhist cosmology. Pretas suffer greatly from hunger and thirst, due to the karma of greed and attachment. [Return to text]
10 The Jewel Ornament of Liberation by Gampopa is from the Kagyu tradition of Tibetan Buddhism. This text presents an overview of the Buddha’s teachings in a form very similar to Lama Tsongkhapa’s lam-rim (graduated path) texts. [Return to text]
11 Excerpted and edited from archive #22. [Return to text]
12 Excerpted from archive #120. [Return to text]
13 Mount Kailash is a mountain peak in the Trans Himalayan mountain range in Tibet. Mount Kailash is considered a sacred place in four religions: Bön, Buddhism, Hinduism and Jainism. In Hinduism, it is considered to be the abode of Lord Shiva and a place of eternal bliss. [Return to text]
14 Tatopani means hot water in the Nepali language. There are many tatopanis, or hot springs, in Nepal. Presumably, Surya Das is referring to Tatopani at Godari, which is a popular hot springs located about three hours drive from Kathmandu. [Return to text]
15 From The Peaceful Stillness of the Silent Mind, pp. 48–9. [Return to text]