A Tribute to Lama Yeshe, 1935-1984

By Various lamas

In 1984, shortly after Lama Yeshe's death, Wisdom Magazine (the magazine of the FPMT, the precurser to today's Mandala magazine) paid tribute to Lama's life and work. There were 30 pages of news, tributes, teachings, poems and photographs. We have reproduced that tribute here. 

Tribute by Lama Zopa Rinpoche

Six weeks after Lama Yeshe’s passing away, Lama Zopa gave his own personal tribute to his guru, recorded as a ten hour video in Delhi and Dharamsala by Italian monk Piero Cerri. This short extract tells of the qualities of Lama’s body, speech and mind. 

For those of us who have received teachings directly from Lama Yeshe, he was incomparably kinder than all the Buddhas of the three times. He took care of us like babies, not only by giving teachings. Lama was more than a mother, more than a father to us, suffering as he did in everyday life for us.

He not only looked after our present life, but our future life also. He led us, helped us make preparation for happiness in this life all the way up to enlightenment.

For all of us it is the greatest sadness that Lama has passed away. We have lost our heart jewel, our wish-granting gem. The remarkable aspect that we can see, that we can communicate with, that we can hear advice from: this has gone.

I think it must be the greatest sadness not only for us, but for many other people also, Tibetan and Western, who are not his disciples; people who have just talked to Lama, or met him briefly when he was travelling, at different times and different places all over the world. Or for those who have only read Lama’s teachings or just heard his holy words. Even those who never saw Lama but only heard his voice on a tape recorder. All these people who have felt Lama’s great warmth, his special character, his great loving kindness, his unbearable compassion; I think Lama’s passing must be a great sadness for them, too.

Lama had such great will, such incredible dedication to work for others. He planned great projects, for the benefit of others and to spread the teachings. Not only did he have the visualization of all this but he was able to actualize it; he accomplished his plans, ensured that they were done, he didn’t just imagine them.

There are many learned lamas and geshes, all bearing the name ‘holy being’ and practising and teaching Dharma, in the East and in the West. And of them Lama is known to be very special; his actions unbearably compassionate, so excellent. The way Lama gave teachings to Western people especially: so suitable, exactly what was needed, perfect for each individual person.

When the sun rises the darkness of the earth is dispelled. In the same way the darkness of ignorance and problems in the minds of so many sentient beings around the world have been dispelled by the sun of Lama’s teachings. Because of him these past few years — since we first met the Russian princess Zina — so much Dharma has spread to dispel the darkness of ignorance.

Many Tibetan lamas from all the traditions, not just Gelugpa, had heard of Lama and knew about his extensive benefit to people in the West. I have received many letters since Lama passed away from other centers and lamas of other traditions saying how sorry they are about Lama.

Lama’s mind was open, you see. His heart was open to all traditions, to all religions. His mind was not tight and narrow. He had such a broad view, he could see far into the distance. He was not on a narrow path. He was not like those who tie themselves to the mountain with a rope because they are afraid of the danger of falling down the mountain.

Normally, there is no great shock when another learned geshe passes away, but many lamas feel a great loss with Lama’s passing. Lama did not have a reputation for being especially learned; he was not a Lharampa geshe or anything like that. But he was known for his great qualities, his open heart. He was not hung up on words, with the outside appearance of things. His main concern was with the meaning behind the words; how to put them into practice, how to actualize.

Just seeing Lama’s holy body somehow made people happy. I have had much experience of this, even among Tibetans, and other people who didn’t know or didn’t like Lama. When they saw him somehow their minds were made very happy. Just seeing him could bring peace and joy. This was a quality of Lama’s holy body and was a way that Lama greatly benefited others.

Even just seeing a picture of Lama can make people happy. Since I was a child at Buxa I had one penfriend who took care of me for many years, exactly like a mother, and when she died her cousin continued to look after me. Her name is Audrey and she lives in England. Her husband Jack has written many books and she was a school teacher. When we started writing I sent her a picture of Lama and even though she had never met him, she told me that when she saw him in the group of people in the picture she felt his warmth. Many people feel this way.

As for the qualities of Lama’s holy speech, I don’t need to say much. Those of us who have received teachings from Lama, his students, it is our own experience. However, most teachers when they give talks to the public, for example in the West where there are completely new people to the Dharma and not so much acceptance, in these situations most teachers like myself teach only what they themselves know and not so much according to the needs of the people. But Lama, whenever he gave teachings nothing was fixed, he didn’t just talk about one subject. In the audience there would be people with various problems — spiritual problems, personal problems, family problems. Lama would speak to all of them. First he would talk about one thing, then another, then another — rather like different dishes. When various dishes of food are served, everybody has a chance to enjoy something.

So, after a one-hour talk from Lama everybody would have received some answer to their problems, whether they were higher class, middle class or lower class, intelligent or not intelligent. In the beginning some might have come just to see how a Tibetan lama looks and others might have come sincerely wanting peace. When Lama had finished, they would all go home with a happy mind, with some solution to their problems.

After a one-hour talk people would leave with great inspiration. Beforehand, there had been no thought of refuge, but now refuge would have started and the people would have the aspiration to learn how to achieve peace of mind. And from this aspiration, started after just one hour’s talk, enlightenment eventually comes. With one hour’s talk Lama would lead the people on the path to omniscient mind, and I think that is unbelievably kind. I think if we offered galaxies of wish-granting jewels for uncountable aeons we could not repay Lama for planting this great aspiration in the mind. You see, our achieving omniscience completely depends on that first aspiration; without it nothing happens.

Even for old students, something similar would happen. In that hour, no matter what Lama would be teaching — bodhicitta, lam-rim, tantra, renunciation — in that hour you could almost transform your mind into that realization.

All this shows the qualities of Lama’s holy speech.

Regarding Lama’s holy mind: you can understand from your own experience about Lama’s great compassion, his constant thought of loving kindness; he wanted only to cherish other sentient beings. Even when Lama showed his unhealthy aspect it was incredible just how much time he spent for us: giving teachings, giving personal advice, writing to us, solving our problems, travelling everywhere. Years ago, doctors said that he would not live long, yet he lived for years more, doing so much activity for others. He never stopped dedicating his life to others.

Even an ordinary, healthy person could not possibly do all these activities. What kept Lama alive so long was his unbearable compassion for us. He tried to live for us as long as possible. Now, though, we don’t have the good fortune to have Lama in that aspect any longer, to receive his guidance. We ran out of merit. But until now, I think Lama tried to live for us and dedicate all his life and time and energy completely to us, day and night.

So, you can see from this, without me saying any more, the qualities of Lama’s holy mind: he completely renounced himself and cherished others.

Among bodhisattvas there are those who have stronger will to work for others. Shakyamuni Buddha, for example, when he was a bodhisattva he actually gave his holy body to the tigers. So Lama, he had the power to control his life, to live longer, even though there was no hope physically. His power was due to his realizations, tantric realizations and the great bodhicitta. He did this to guide us students, to help us make our lives more meaningful, to lead us from confusion.

One time Lama was telling me that the whole point is to transform everything into Dharma, every action should be turned into the Dharma. He said that for some people even breathing became work for other sentient beings. Besides teaching and other normal activities, eating, sleeping, sitting, even the breath benefited others. Every movement becomes work for others.

When he said these things I always felt very much that Lama was describing himself, all his own qualities, his own actions, the realizations of his own holy mind, his own bodhicitta.

I remember one time Lama said ‘I cannot do the work of the second bhumi bodhisattva, the third bhumi bodhisattva, I just cannot do work for other sentient beings as second bhumi bodhisattva, third bhumi bodhisattva.’ Lama didn’t mention the work of the bodhisattva path of merit and accumulation, the first bhumi bodhisattva. For me, according to our general karmic view this shows that Lama had already generated the realizations of the first bhumi, and not only sutra. Otherwise there was no reason for him to say that he cannot do the work of the second, third bhumis.

Actually, in one way it looked like Lama already had realizations, that Lama was a bodhisattva from the very beginning of his life. I remember one time when a great meditator friend of Lama used to come to see him and they would teach each other. This yogi would say for example that ‘training the mind in the three principal paths is very old-time talk, very ancient talk.’ For him you see, this work was finished ages ago. Anyway, he would talk like this. And Lama said one time, ‘Oh, shunyata, I realized that while I was debating in the courtyard’; when he was young, at Sera Je.

One time, when Lama was taking the Lama Chöpa commentary from His Holiness Trijang Rinpoche, he would come back down from the teachings on, say, the graduated path and he wouldn’t be too surprised. Then when he heard about the path of realizations he would say they were nothing special. But when he would come back down after hearing the teachings on exchanging oneself with others, he would say ‘that is the real teaching of Buddha, the very heart.’

Lama would always meditate immediately after hearing the teachings, after each session. So, to me it seems that Lama generated bodhicitta at that time; according to the general view it seems like that. But also, Lama was born with bodhicitta.

One monk in the same class as Lama at Sera Je once told me that when he was shaving Lama’s head in Tibet he saw the syllable ah on Lama’s head; just naturally a syllable ah was on Lama’s head.

Regarding Lama’s tantric realizations: I lived with Lama for many years, since Buxa. I would see Lama’s particular practices, his secret practices and the teachings written by him. I would explain all these to Geshe Rabten Rinpoche, who was there at the time also.

Lama wrote one text on the Six Yogas of Naropa and various others texts, all from his own experiences. I showed them to Geshe Sopa Rinpoche one time when I was at his house in Madison, Wisconsin. I explained Lama’s practices to him, and the things that Lama said. So, he would check Lama’s writings.

Lama’s main deity was Heruka. I remember when we came to Nepal first I saw a text that Lama had written on Heruka. There was very little in it about the generation stage, mostly the completion stage.

During our second tour of America in 1975, we stayed again with Geshe Sopa. I checked Lama’s texts while he was in hospital and they were mostly about the clear light. And the texts that he was reading then were mostly about the meditation on clear light. So, I think gradually, year by year....

Lama always used to take a rest after lunch for one or two hours; wherever he was he would do this. At first I thought it was just ordinary rest, but gradually I realized that these were Lama’s meditation sessions. At these times he would continue to practise the meditation on clear light, developing realizations. Lama would always take this time after lunch.

I remember one time at Kopan during the ceremonies for the investiture of Yangsi Rinpoche, in 1975, Lama spent time with Rinpoche’s father, Jampa Thinley, who was a very close friend of Lama, they had been in the same class at Sera Je. Anyway, this time Lama did not have time for his rest after lunch. Lama felt a great loss, I remember noticing how he sat there: it seemed like such a great loss, like a normal person having lost something valuable.

So, to ordinary people who didn’t know Lama’s level of mind, who didn’t know that Lama was a great hidden yogi, Lama would simply have a rest after lunch.

Another time, at Kopan, after having his afternoon rest Lama said to me, ‘Strange, this time I had a dream’; one protector had offered Lama blood, or something, made some offering to Lama. Anyway, Lama said then that normally he didn’t go to sleep, but this time he did, just for a few minutes and he had had this dream. In fact, Lama never slept.

Lama used to talk to me so much about great bliss; this was some years ago. He talked so much about great bliss. So, when Lama did his job or when Lama meditated or when Lama wrote — always, clear light and bliss.

In 1982 when Lama taught the Six Yogas of Naropa at Lama Tsongkhapa Institute in Italy, he told me that he had a picture of Lama Tsongkhapa, it was very precious to him. Normally Lama never had pictures, but this time this one of Lama Tsongkhapa seemed to be very special to him. Lama told me later, ‘That time at Lama Tsongkhapa Institute I used to do the Heruka self-initiation every morning, I entered the mandala every morning before I taught the people. I think it helped very much, benefited the students very much.’ And he said that at that time he had ‘incredible, unbelievable devotion to Lama Tsongkhapa.’

Earlier, Lama had three or four pages of questions to ask His Holiness Serkong Rinpoche, and they were mainly about the illusory body. Lama had written many questions against the stanzas in Lama Tsongkhapa’s texts about the illusory body. Earlier, the teachings on the illusory body were unclear, but when Lama Tsongkhapa came he made it so clear how to develop the illusory body. I think Lama was showing the incredible kindness of Lama Tsongkhapa.

So, when we saw Serkong Rinpoche he said to Lama, ‘Why do you say this and that about the illusory body, about bliss and voidness?’ Lama didn’t say he had realizations, he said, ‘I don’t know, I’m just talking like that.’ Lama was so full of admiration for Lama Tsongkhapa and he asked Serkong Rinpoche to give more teachings on the completion stage.

So, according to the general view Lama’s incredible faith in Lama Tsongkhapa at that time and his questions to Serkong Rinpoche showed me that Lama had taken the illusory body.

Actually, I feel that Lama was like one Rinpoche I heard about from Zong Rinpoche who had achieved the illusory body and was thus able to memorize texts and make offerings to the Buddhas with his illusory body at night; he was able to do so much Dharma activity in this way and to accumulate so much merit. I think Lama was like that: at night with his illusory body he was able to read so many scriptures.

Whatever Lama was doing, no matter how busy he was, talking, giving advice, taking teachings, giving teachings, no matter what he was doing he always was able to read many texts. When Lama was in retreat there would be a text in here, one over there, another one outside in the garden.

Lama had the power to know exactly a person’s mind. He was able to give people exact advice, suitable advice. Even the jobs that he gave to each person, each student, they suited each person’s karma so perfectly. I found this so many times, that only that particular person was able to do a particular job.

Lama was always so incredibly busy, he never stopped working for others. At Kopan, for example, he would always look after everything. He would look after me, all the boys, even the kitchen, the library, right down to the dogs. He was so busy yet he even washed the dogs and looked after the puppies who were sick.

People would often criticize Lama, ‘Oh, he is not keeping vinaya,’ because he touched everybody. However, I felt completely when I saw Lama touch people that from his head down to his feet he was filled totally with compassion for that person. Like His Holiness the Dalai Lama; I almost cry when I see His Holiness, seeing his unbearable compassion. So, like that. Instead of individual attachment, Lama was completely under the control of compassion, bodhicitta. He renounced himself and cherished others, and was able to see things as illusory.

And Lama had such great scope, great vision, the power to see and have huge plans that would benefit many people. And he actualized these plans.

All this is very briefly what I felt about the qualities of Lama Yeshe’s holy body, holy speech and holy mind.