Piero Cerri: Please, Rinpoche, could you tell us about Lama’s passing away, and what his last instructions and advice were?
Rinpoche: All of us students received teachings directly from Lama Yeshe, who is incomparably kind, kinder than all the buddhas of the three times. Lama especially took care of us, his students, like babies. Lama was more than a mother, more than a father to us, not only giving us teachings but solving our problems in everyday life.
Lama looked after not only our present life but our future lives. Lama helped us to make so much preparation for the happiness of this life and all our lives, up to enlightenment.
Before Lama passed away, he took the aspect of heart disease, and was unable to do his normal activities of traveling and giving teachings. In hospital Lama also showed the aspect of paralysis and then at the end Lama passed away. The greatest sadness happened in our life, because we lost our heart jewel, our heart wish-granting jewel. We lost this wonderful, remarkable aspect that we could see and communicate with and receive advice from, now and in the future, up to enlightenment.
I’m sure for all of us to hear that Lama took the aspect of disease and then passed way must be the greatest sadness. I think this caused great sadness not only to us, the students who received teachings directly from Lama, but to many other people, Tibetans and Westerners, even those who are not Lama’s disciples. Many Western people met and talked with Lama, even short conversations, when he traveled at different times to different places. In addition to those who actually saw Lama and heard Lama’s holy words, there are those who have read Lama’s teachings in a book or listened to them on tapes. I think even the people who didn’t meet Lama or hear his talks got a very warm feeling just by reading one of Lama’s books or articles. They could feel Lama’s special character, his great loving kindness and his unbearable compassion for others.
Even somebody who hadn’t met Buddhadharma could feel that Lama is different from ordinary people, that Lama is definitely higher. So, I think that many people, even those who haven’t met Lama, were very sorry from the heart that he had passed away.
Many Tibetans, especially those who met Lama, know that Lama was not only learned but had incredible, unbearable compassion. And in particular, Lama had an incredibly brave mind, with a great will to dedicate himself to others. Lama could plan great projects to benefit others and to spread the teachings. Lama could not only visualize such projects but also actualize them.
Even though in the East and in the West there are many other learned lamas and geshes bearing the name “holy being,” Lama’s holy actions were known to be very special. One of Lama’s special qualities was the way Lama gave teachings, particularly in the West to Western people and the way Lama encouraged them. The way Lama gave teachings and practices was perfect for each individual person.
In the few years since Lama and I met the first student, Zina, who had the title of a Russian princess, just as the sun rising dispels the darkness of this earth, the ignorance in the minds of so many sentient beings, especially in the West, were dispelled by the spread of the teachings. Lama had the particular ability and did particular activities to subdue others by revealing the teachings with various means of his holy body, holy speech, and holy mind.
So many Tibetan lamas, not only among Gelugpas but even from other sects such as the Nyingma and Kagyu, even those who haven’t met Lama, have heard about how much Lama benefited others, especially people in the West. After Lama passed away, I received letters from great lamas from other centers and other sects saying how sorry they felt that Lama had passed away.
Also, Lama didn’t have a closed mind. Lama had a very open mind, or heart. He was open to all the different religions and all the different sects. He didn’t have a tight, closed, narrow mind. Lama had a very broad view and could see very far. Lama was not somebody who walks a narrow path.
Generally speaking, there wouldn’t be that much shock about just another learned geshe passing away. Among Tibetans, Lama didn’t even have a reputation as learned, as a top Lharampa geshe. But lamas from the other sects felt great loss, because of Lama’s special qualities, especially his open heart. Lama was not hung up on words and external appearances; he mainly checked and understood the meaning behind the words. He was not confused about the external words of sutra and tantra and of the different sects. He concentrated on the main aim, or meaning, and by putting it into practice, how to actualize that. This is a particular quality of Lama Yeshe.
Before I answer this instantaneous question, I thought to mention a little bit about how I met Lama, and then the general qualities of Lama’s holy body, holy speech, and holy mind, as well as some details of Lama’s passing away. Many people might have questions in their minds about why Lama passed away, as the question came from Thubten Donyö. So, I thought to talk a little on these things, on the little that I saw and felt with my limited mind during the many years that I lived with Lama.
In Tibet, I memorized the texts and took an examination in that monastery. My manager, the one who took care of me while I was living in Domo Geshe’s monastery, helped me to make the offerings to enter the monastery, to become a monk, like a citizen, in the monastery. After Tibet had already been taken over by the Chinese, I took the examination in the prayer hall with the leader of the puja, and all the monks were also there.
For about nine months after Tibet was taken over by the Chinese, the monks, my manager and I were still going round to benefactors to do pujas. We heard the news that the monks who had escaped to India, mainly those from Sera, Drepung and Ganden, had gathered in this place called Buxa to continue their studies. They were receiving food from the U.N. relief committee in Delhi.
I was planning to go to Lhasa, but the protector of that monastery had warned me not to go. One or two months later—or maybe even in that same month—Lhasa was conquered. I was a little confused about what to do, so the protector advised me to go to Pema Chöling, a small monastery that was a branch of Domo Geshe’s monastery to do retreat.
So, I did my first retreat, which was Lama Tsongkhapa Guru Yoga. I was supposed to be reciting 100,000 migtsemas. It was not strict. Pema Chöling was a beautiful monastery, quiet and isolated, even though it was quite near a main road. The monastery stood on a small hill in a green valley with a stream in the center. Nomads from the mountains behind would bring butter and cheese.
I don’t remember how I did the retreat, but I believe I somehow completed the number of recitations. I don’t know how that came about. The place where I did retreat was above the main gompa. According to Tibetan custom of building monasteries, there would be a gompa downstairs and three rooms upstairs, with a main, central room, usually filled with thousands of Lama Tsongkhapa statues. I didn’t see any statues in that monastery; in place of statues, there was a whole wall of butter. There were also Bhutanese baskets with more butter and dried yak meat.
Next to this room was the small room where I did retreat. My manager gave me a small text—I don’t remember precisely, but it might have been a Jorchö commentary. I tried to read a few pages. I didn’t receive any meditation advice at all. I think I just sat on the bed, ate a lot of food, and just recited “Mig me tse wäi ter chhen chän rä zig....”
The night that I finished the 100,000 recitations, some monks came on horses from Phagri on the way to Domo Geshe’s monastery, and they were thinking to escape. We then heard that the Chinese were beating and killing people. They were getting people to abuse and beat the wealthy people and anyone who had a name as a leader. We heard that the fighting would reach us after two days. It had already reached a mountain one day away. In the middle of that night my manager did an observation in front of the local protector of that monastery of Pema Chöling. Because spies working for the Chinese lived in the monastery, my manager did the mo very quietly. It said that there was deep danger, so we escaped with the other monks.
The monks were expecting things to get better after a few days or weeks, when they would then come back. They were expecting to come back soon, like someone who has a fight with their wife or husband and leaves home for a few days.
They packed just enough tsampa for a few days. They were possibly also scared that they might be attacked on the road by the nomads who were Chinese spies. They also carried small knives, as it’s the custom, to make a threatening gesture if anybody attacked them.
I was extremely happy that night, with no fear at all. Somehow there was great happiness in my mind. There was a little snow on the road, and it made an interesting sound—crack, crack, crack—as we were walking. After the moon had set that night, we lost our way. It was muddy when we went down the mountain, our feet slipped and we fell down a bit. I don’t remember if it was up or down, but the hill became like a mountain. At dawn, as we came near the border, we could hear the nomads’ dogs barking. We stopped and had breakfast in the bamboo house of a nomad. We drank some sort of soup, maybe milk and water. I can’t really remember.
The border was continuously guarded by guards with primitive rifles. One of the border guards was sent with us to Buxa, where there was supposed to be 1,500 monks who were studying the five great treatises.
Along the way we met more and more people, monks and benefactors and other people. There were about thirty of us. Next day we reached a Bhutanese hamlet, then went from there to Buxa. I think I rode on a horse from there to Buxa. About thirty people rode horses down.
Like Tibet, Bhutan is also quite an inspiring place, with a monastery on almost every hill. Perhaps he was being arrogant, but the border guard who accompanied us to Buxa said that if you went on a pilgrimage to visit all these monasteries, you wouldn’t be finished even after a year.
We had a monastery in Darjeeling, a branch of the Domo Geshe monastery in Tibet. There were actually two monasteries: an old one that had been offered by the government to the previous Domo Geshe and a new one that was built during the lifetime of the previous Domo Geshe. All of us thought that since we have a monastery, we could go straight there. The other monks left, but somehow the chief of police kept us in Buxa. I don’t know what happened. Perhaps somebody from Sera Je College asked him not to send me to Darjeeling, or perhaps some protector changed the mind of the chief of police. There was no reason that he should stop our going to Darjeeling. He didn’t receive any money for stopping me from going to Darjeeling. Somehow, he didn’t let me go away to Darjeeling. That I had the opportunity to stay in Buxa and to at least plant the seed of the scriptures of the debating subject is by the kindness of that policeman. Because he stopped me from going to Darjeeling, I had my first opportunity to study. I don’t think he was Indian; I think he was Tibetan.
The policeman said that one of the monks should stay to be my attendant. So, my manager stayed and the rest gradually left for Darjeeling. I think one of the monks who came to stay with us was from Ganden and Drepung; he stayed sometimes in Ganden and sometimes in Drepung. This monk knew Gelek Rimpoche, who had already started to learn English from some friendly Indian police. Somehow my manager also knew Gelek Rimpoche, so he and the monk took me to Gelek Rimpoche. For three days, I studied the first stanza of homage from the beginning of dura text from Drepung Monastery. Even now I still remember part of the verse.
Anyway, after three days, Gelek Rimpoche told me, “I cannot become your guru.” He told me that Geshe Rabten Rinpoche was a very good teacher and that I should go to take teachings from him. So, I met Geshe Rabten Rinpoche by the kindness of Gelek Rimpoche. When I saw Gelek Rinpoche a year ago, I told him that I was able to meet Geshe Rinpoche by his kindness in introducing Geshe Rimpoche.
I then went to see Geshe Rabten Rinpoche. Now the main part of the talk is coming. When I went to see Geshe Rinpoche, I was maybe fourteen or fifteen, and I was quite small at that time. I was wearing a thick shemthab that a tall monk would wear. It was folded in two, as I had a short body. Geshe Rinpoche was sitting on a bamboo bed on the verandah of the building that was used as the prison for Nehru, with the Sera monks sitting inside the building and some outside on the verandah. The bed was very high, so I couldn’t climb up.
Down below Geshe Rinpoche was Lama Yeshe’s bed. There were bars and barbed wire on the other side of the wall, so it wasn’t easy to leave. There was a bed on the verandah, a short gap, then barbed wire on the verandah, then another bed, then a cupboard. You entered the main door, turned right, then when you reached the end of the wall, there was Geshe Rinpoche’s bed.
Each time I came to receive dura teachings, Lama Yeshe used to lift me up and put me on Geshe Rinpoche’s bed. I think one reason that without choice I have to sit on a throne is that Lama put me on Gen Rinpoche’s bed to receive teachings. I sat next to Gen Rinpoche. I used to look down at Lama Yeshe, who used to sit facing Gen Rinpoche. Lama used to have big piles of texts in front of him and be looking at Gen Rinpoche like this.
Sitting on Gen Rinpoche’s bed, I was looking down on Lama, and I definitely got a special feeling. I thought, “This person is extremely devoted to Gen Rinpoche.” That is exactly what I thought. I thought he was serious, not joking.
After that, Gen Rinpoche moved from that place a little bit higher up the mountain. After my manager left, I stayed with Gen Rinpoche for quite a long time, along with Gonsar Rinpoche and another lama. Lama used to like me very, very much. Each time Lama’s class came to receive vinaya teachings, while they waited outside until Gen Rinpoche was ready to receive them in his room, Lama always picked me up by my belt and held me on his shoulders. He did this many times.
Of course, even at that time, you got a very good feeling from Lama, a particular feeling of purity or holiness. He was not only learned; there was something deep.
Gen Rinpoche was too busy to give us teachings. Gen Rinpoche, because he had to give teachings to many different classes, found it difficult to make the time to teach me and one or two other people separately. So, Gen Rinpoche pointed to another teacher, a very learned Tibetan monk also called Gen Thubten Yeshe.
I received teachings on Lama Tsongkhapa Guru Yoga meditations by borrowing the text from Gen Rinpoche. I then received teachings on Lama Tsongkhapa Guru Yoga. It was a long time ago now, but I remember certain important points. Gen Yeshe also taught me the seven techniques of Mahayana cause and effect from the Prajnaparamita. I think he also taught the part of the subject that talks about the propagators of the profound and of the extensive teachings.
Gen Yeshe wanted to live an ascetic life. He wanted to be homeless and just wander around different places, so Gen Rinpoche left. So again I didn’t have a teacher. The head of my class, [Champel], Lama Pasang, and some other monks were taking teachings from Lama. Some of them had been Lama’s disciples in Tibet, I think. [Champel] stayed outside of our house. He insisted that I go to take teachings from Lama. I had no thought to do that, as Geshe Rinpoche had suggested that I go to Geshe Thubten.
One day I got out of bed and left the house with [Champel], because I used to go for walks with him or to bathe in the river. When we went outside the monastery, I said, “I don’t want to go to see Lama.” When I tried to turn back toward the monastery, he kept pushing, “You must go, you must go.” I then went up the hill a little bit. Then again I objected and said that I didn’t want to go. Again he pushed me up the hill. I went back a little bit, then walked up a little further. Then again I objected. Like this, little by little, we came to Lama’s room. Even when I reached there, I rejected the idea. There was no particular reason—it wasn’t that there was anything wrong with Lama. Somehow I just didn’t want to go. Outside Lama’s house, I objected again, but [Champel] just pushed me up close to the house.
I didn’t have any offering with me. [Champel] had brought one old scarf. I think he put some rice and one rupee in a bowl. He arranged everything. I then went inside. Lama taught on the subject of cause and effect from dura. Dura has two different subjects of cause and effect, the smaller and the greater. I think Lama probably taught on the smaller one, but I’m not sure.
Again, somehow, I had to sit next to Lama, with the others sitting down on the floor. It was a small room. On the window behind Lama was a whole nest of ants. He lived a completely ascetic life, not only externally ascetic but also internally ascetic, mentally ascetic. Lama taught, but I didn’t understand anything at all. I didn’t understand a single thing during that hour that I had to sit on Lama’s bed. I wished very strongly that Lama would slow down. The question that came in my mind was, “Why does Lama have to teach so fast? Why can’t he teach slowly?” I think because I came with a strange attitude and was only there because [Champel] pushed me, I didn’t understand anything at all. Probably that itself is what I learned; that I didn’t learn anything that first day because I didn’t come with a proper attitude.
I continued to take teachings, and I don’t think I had that same feeling the second time. What I remember of the first day that I met Lama, of the first teaching, is the great difficulty I had understanding anything.
From that time, I don’t remember which year it was, I took teachings from Lama. I received teachings on dura and namdrol, some teachings on logic, and also some of the Madhyamaka commentary written by Jetsun Chökyi Gyaltsen of Sera Je College. And I think I received the Prajnaparamita teachings written by Jetsun Chökyi Gyaltsen, up to the path of preparation, before I left for Nepal. I received from Lama various teachings from the five treatises.
During that time, Lama used to lie down in the daytime, so people would think that Lama was sleeping. Then at night, when the monks were snoring in bed, Lama would get up and read and study the scriptures. Also, it was very quiet at night, with no people coming around, whereas the daytime was not quiet.
Besides giving teachings, from the time we started to live together, Lama also cooked for me. In the beginning, I used to live inside the house and Lama stayed outside at the back of the house. After some time, he moved inside. Outside, at the end of the house, there would sometimes be a large group of people, including Geshe Thinley, Lama’s brother. In the same group there were many monks from Sera Me and Sera Je.
I had the opportunity to receive so many initiations and sutra and tantra teachings from His Holiness the Dalai Lama, as well as from many other lamas, in different places all because Lama sent me to take teachings. My having the opportunity to receive so many teachings and initiations is by Lama’s kindness. That I have had the opportunity to experience these things and plant so many seeds, even though not the slightest thing has happened, is by the kindness of Lama Yeshe.
Lama guided me spiritually and he also guided my life, more than a father, more than a mother. Lama took care of me the way a mother hen feeds her chicks, giving food from her mouth to theirs. And Lama will still be taking care of me in the next life. He took care of me during this life and is still taking care of me, even though Lama is no longer in that aspect. His kindness cannot be repaid at any time.
The qualities of Lama’s holy body
Even people who had never met Lama got a very warm feeling simply by seeing his picture; they felt he was somebody who was concerned about others. I had an English pen friend who took care of me like a mother for seven years even though I never met her. When I was staying at Buxa, she sent the money to pay for the medicine when I had TB; when I was at school, she paid all my expenses for food, clothing, and many other things. After she passed away, I continued to have contact with her cousin, Audrey, who was a schoolteacher, and her husband, Jack, who wrote many books. When I sent Audrey a photo of Lama in a group of people, even though she had never met Lama, she told me that she got a warm feeling from seeing Lama’s face. I think many people reacted in a similar way to seeing Lama’s holy body, even in a photo. Somehow it made their mind happy.
I had much experience of this even among Tibetans. Even though many of them were not aware of Lama’s particular qualities, simply seeing Lama made their minds very happy. Just seeing Lama’s holy body brought much peace and joy to the mind. One of the qualities of the holy body is that simply seeing it was of great benefit to others.
Even when Lama was showing the aspect of being very ill, one day he would look thin and dark, then the next day he would look so bright and magnificent that you might almost think that Lama had no sickness at all. He showed various aspects. Lama might be looking very ill; but when somebody came to visit him, he would suddenly change his aspect and be smiling and teasing.
One day Yangsi Rinpoche’s teacher, the manager of Sera Je College, and some other Sera monks came to see Lama at the farmhouse outside Delhi. Lama was very strict about people not seeing him, but some monks were allowed to see him. That day Lama dressed in new robes and showed a healthy aspect. That day when they came to ask Lama to live long, Lama looked very healthy, but then the next day it was different.
I don’t need to say much about the qualities of Lama’s holy speech because it is the personal experience of the students who received teachings from him. When they give a public talk in the West, where there are often people who are completely new to the Dharma, other Tibetan lamas normally speak about subjects that they know and not so much about what the people need. Lama, however, would not talk on any one fixed subject, unless something had been specifically requested by the center or by the students.
As the people in the audience had various problems concerning spiritual practice or their family, Lama would speak on one subject, then switch to another, then another, without there necessarily being a connection between the subjects. Lama’s speech would be like offering different dishes of food. When the various dishes are served, everybody finds enjoyment. Even though they might not like all the foods, everybody finds something they like. In an hour’s talk from Lama, everybody received some answer to their own problems, whether they were high class, middle class, or lower class; whether they were highly educated or poorly educated. Everybody got some answer as to how to deal with their problem. After one hour of the lecture, they returned home extremely happy because they had some solution in their mind. At the beginning some came out of curiosity, just to see what a Tibetan lama looks like; others came very sincerely to seek some peace of mind. However, after Lama had talked for one hour, they were all greatly inspired; they realized that what is called “a Tibetan lama” is remarkable—quite different from ordinary people.
Lama’s talk did so much to benefit people who were confused. By hearing Lama talk for an hour, people received great inspiration to learn more about Tibetan Buddhism. Before they came to the talk, they had no refuge; their minds were completely empty. Within that hour, refuge in Dharma was actualized in their minds. I would say that wishing to study Buddhism for peace of mind is taking refuge in Dharma. The person is relying upon Tibetan Buddhism to bring them peace of mind. From this inspiration comes enlightenment. The inspiration that these people got during this one hour caused them to hear more teachings, study, and put the teachings into practice, so it gradually leads them to omniscient mind.
Lama’s public talk leads people to omniscience. Lama is unbelievably kind, because he is the one who planted the first inspiration in their mind, teaching them to listen to the holy Dharma and then apply it in practice. I think one hour of Lama’s talk is unbelievably precious. If we offered Lama all three galaxies filled with dollars for uncountable eons, we could not repay him for his unbelievable kindness in planting this great inspiration in our minds. You can see how our achieving full enlightenment completely depends on it. Without it, our enlightenment wouldn’t happen.
It was the same when Lama taught introductory lamrim and tantra. When you were listening to Lama talk, you felt that you could almost transform your mind into the realizations of that path. If Lama taught on bodhicitta, you felt that you had achieved the realization of bodhicitta. It was similar to hearing His Holiness the Dalai Lama teach.
The qualities of Lama’s holy mind
Lama had understanding of sutra and tantra, not only according to Gelugpa but also according to other Tibetan sects, such as Nyingma. He had even studied astrology. He was knowledgeable not only about Tibetan culture but also about Western philosophy.
A particular quality of Lama’s mind and speech, was that every single word came out of bodhicitta, exchanging self for others; every single word was for others. Lama’s holy mind had the great thought of loving kindness, wishing to cherish other sentient beings. You can understand this from how much time Lama spent on his students. Even while he was showing the aspect of being unhealthy, Lama took the time to give teachings, to write to his students, and to give advice. Even though he had many other things to do, Lama spent so much time giving advice to solve the problems of individual students and families. Lama gave so much of his life to solving all these problems.
From the first time that Lama had x-rays in Kathmandu, the doctors kept on telling him that he would not live long. The first doctor told him that he had only one year to live; the doctor said that Lama’s condition was serious and that he would pass away soon. Many other doctors subsequently agreed with this diagnosis. However, even with this physical condition, Lama lived for many years, during which he traveled extensively and engaged in many activities, such as teaching and solving the problems of his students and centers. Lama dedicated his life, his time and energy to others.
An ordinary person with such poor health could not have lived that long and they would have found it impossible to carry on all those activities. Lama was able to live so long and benefit others so extensively despite his dangerously poor health because of the unbearable compassion he felt for his students. Lama tried to live for us as long as possible. We ran out of the merit to have Lama with us and to receive guidance from him in that particular aspect. But until this happened, Lama lived for us and dedicated all his time completely to us, day and night. You can see from this the qualities of Lama’s holy mind: how he renounced himself and cherished others.
In Delhi, after Lama had taken the disease, sometimes Lama used to say, “I try to control. I control.” Sometimes this just slipped out from his holy mouth. At certain times, Lama said, “I control.” An ordinary person could not have survived with Lama’s health situation. They could not have lived that long. First of all, since I am talking about the qualities of Lama’s holy mind, it was due to his great bodhicitta.
Among bodhisattvas some have stronger wills. For example, when Maitreya Buddha and Shakyamuni Buddha were bodhisattvas, they had different wills. When Shakyamuni Buddha was still a bodhisattva, he actually gave his holy body to the tigers. However, when Maitreya Buddha was a bodhisattva, he saw the tigers but he didn’t actually make charity of his holy body to them even though he had the thought of loving kindness and great compassion.
Mainly to guide us, the students, to make our lives meaningful and lead us from confusion, Lama was able to live because of this. Even though physically there seemed to be no hope, Lama was able to live because of the power of his great bodhicitta and tantric realizations.
The head doctor who treated Lama at the hospital where he passed away was young, compassionate, very intelligent, and very open-minded about other cultures and beliefs. When we had meetings with the doctor and asked questions, he seemed very confident and reliable. He explained the whole evolution of Lama’s heart disease very clearly, more clearly than I’d heard from the heart surgeons. He showed us all the results of Lama’s tests at Stanford University and explained all the problems with Lama’s damaged heart valves.
All the doctors, and especially this doctor, were very surprised that Lama had lived for so many years. All the nurses and doctors made a lot of exceptions for us and took more care of us. Other patients didn’t have private nurses or family members staying there with them, but they allowed Lama to have me and Thubten Monlam, the young monk from Kopan who had been cooking for us for many years, as well as two Western nurses.
One of the trained nurses, Elaine, from Vajrapani Institute, took care of Lama during the daytime, then went back to the hotel where Mummy Max and the other nurse also stayed. At night Shastra and then Tom stayed with me. They looked after Lama in that hospital.
The hospital staff made many exceptions for us, and they were very concerned about Lama. I think the nurses and doctors were much more upset after Lama passed away; they felt sadder, I think.
The doctor described one vein going down to the heart that he said he had never seen in anybody before. He said that it was maybe because of this that Lama had lived for so long. I understood from that a little about how karma can be changed. Even the physical body can be changed from its normal structure if your karma is strong enough.
When I once mentioned to Lama that I thought there was not much benefit in my continuing to travel to the West, Lama told me that the whole point is to transform every action you do into Dharma. Lama used to say that for some beings besides giving teachings and normal activities such as sleeping and eating, even breathing became of benefit to other sentient beings. Every movement became work for other sentient beings. I felt very much that Lama was describing himself. I think he was describing his own qualities and realizations. Lama didn’t say, “This is what I do,” but I felt that he was actually describing the particular qualities of his own holy mind, his own bodhicitta.
Once or twice Lama said, “Cannot do the work for other sentient beings like a second or third bhumi bodhisattva.” (Lama didn’t use the subject “I.”) This implies that, in the general view, Lama had generated the realizations of the first bhumi, that Lama was a first bhumi bodhisattva. Otherwise, there would be no reason to speak like this.
In one way it looks as if Lama had the realization of bodhicitta from the very beginning of his reincarnation; it looks as if he was a bodhisattva as a child.
However, when the great meditator Gen Jampa Wangdu Lama used to come to see Lama, they often teased each other. Lama used to always put down the ascetic monks, saying that they might physically be living on high mountains, but their minds were clinging to worldly things. He would say that the monks were living on offerings, which brought much pollution, so how could ascetic monks possibly gain realizations.
Lama would then say, “Oh, the whole world comes to me. I have everything and I enjoy it.” Lama’s way of putting down Gen Jampa Wangdu and the other ascetic monks was very interesting.
When Lama and Gen Jampa Wangdu teased each other, Gen Jampa Wangdu used to say, “Training the mind in the three principal paths is ancient talk.” This meant that he had completed the realizations ages ago. This was very true. Then Lama would reply, “Oh, I realized shunyata such a long time ago, when I was debating in the courtyard at Sera Je.”
Lama, along with Gen Jampa Wangdu and many thousands of learned geshes and high lamas, received the Lama Chöpa commentary from His Holiness Trijang Rinpoche. When it came to the lamrim prayer in Lama Chöpa, Lama said that he didn’t find anything special in the teachings on the graduated path of the being of lower capability: impermanence and so forth. Nor did he find anything special in the part on renunciation. But when it came to the section on exchanging self for others, Lama said he felt this was the real teaching of Buddha, the very heart of Buddha’s teaching. While Lama was receiving these teachings, he meditated immediately after the sessions. In some ways, in the general view, it looks as if Lama generated bodhicitta at that time; on the other hand, it looks as if Lama was born with bodhicitta. In any case, he generated bodhicitta a long time ago.
Also, I heard from a monk in the same class as Lama at Sera Je College, that in Tibet one of the monks saw a syllable AH on Lama’s head when he was shaving his hair. That monk has now passed away, but he used to say that there was a naturally appearing syllable AH on Lama’s head.
Lama’s tantric realizations
I lived with Lama for many years. When I explained to Geshe Rabten Rinpoche everything about Lama’s achievements and particular secret practice, as well as the teachings written by Lama, Geshe-la told me that even when Lama was at Buxa he was reading a lot of tantric texts.
Lama wrote various texts from his own experience, including one on the Six Yogas of Naropa and offerings to Gyalwa Gyatso. I showed these to Geshe Sopa Rinpoche when I was at his house in Madison and explained Lama’s practices to him. Gen Rinpoche checked through Lama’s writings and confirmed that he was reading tantric texts when he was in Buxaduar.
Lama’s main deity is Heruka. And even from the time when we came to Nepal from India, Lama was reading texts not so much on the generation stage of Heruka but mostly on the completion stage. On the second tour to America, we stayed for a month in Madison, near to Geshe Sopa Rinpoche’s house, for a holiday. During that time, while Lama was away in hospital, I checked the texts that Lama was reading. Most of them were tantric texts dealing with the clear light. Even from that time, Lama was reading various texts on the clear light.
After lunch each day Lama would usually go to rest for one or two hours. Wherever Lama was, in the West or in the East, Lama tried to take time to rest. In the beginning I didn’t realize what Lama was doing and thought it was just like our sleep; then gradually I felt that it was actually a meditation session. In the general view, Lama was continuing to meditate on clear light in order to develop that realization.
I remember one day at Kopan when Yangsi Rinpoche’s family came to visit us after lunch. Yangsi Rinpoche’s father, Jampa Thinley, used to be in Lama’s class in Tibet and was a close friend. Whenever they met up with each other, they were very happy and would spend hours talking. Because of the visit, Lama didn’t have time to rest after lunch, so after they left Lama said that he felt a great loss that he hadn’t found time to rest. Lama showed the aspect of being very sorry, like an ordinary person who had lost a big sack of gold. It didn’t make sense to feel so sorry about having missed an hour of rest. People who didn’t know that Lama was a great hidden yogi, a great tantric practitioner, might believe that what Lama calls “rest” or “sleep” is the same as an ordinary person’s sleep.
The second last time that Lama was at Kopan, he spent some time in the small hut at the top of the hill. Lama fixed up the hut a little and one day he went to have his rest there. When he came back, Lama said, “It’s strange. Normally I don’t fall asleep, but this time I fell asleep for a few minutes and had a dream. I dreamt that a protector made offering to me.” This shows that when Lama goes to rest after lunch he normally didn’t go to sleep.
Also, some years ago, Lama used to speak so much about great bliss. He would mention great bliss in his conversations, in relation to doing a job, his meditation, or his writing. He wrote about clear light and bliss.
Later, Lama taught the course on the Six Yogas of Naropa at Istituto Lama Tzong Khapa. From that time, Lama kept a picture of Lama Tsongkhapa with him and obviously regarded it as precious, even though he normally didn’t travel with thangkas or pictures. Lama treated this one picture as special. I don’t know exactly what happened during the course, but Lama told me, “While I was at Istituto Lama Tzong Khapa, I did Heruka self-initiation every morning before I taught the students. It seemed to benefit the students very much.” Lama then added, “I generated incredible devotion to Lama Tsongkhapa at this time.”
Lama sent three or four pages of questions about tantra, mainly about the illusory body, to His Holiness Serkong Rinpoche.
Many of the students who have heard teachings from him know that he was helping His Holiness the Dalai Lama in Tibet and also in India during Dharma activities. His Holiness studied Dharma then later also took teachings from His Holiness Tsenshap Serkong Rinpoche as a guru.
Rinpoche said, “I’m so busy offering His Holiness the Dalai Lama the Kalachakra commentaries.” I remember one monk with a very clear face sat down next to me yesterday during Gen Jampa Wangdu’s cremation. He has the lineage of the Kalachakra root texts and commentaries. His Holiness Tsenshap Serkong passed away, so then His Holiness took different commentaries from Kirti Tsenshab Rinpoche. Kirti Tsenshab Rinpoche is incredibly learned. He looks like a very simple Tibetan monk and doesn’t have the slightest pride. It is a mark of a very good monk not to show the slightest pride.
Anyway, Rinpoche said this, and Lama didn’t get the answers. Lama asked about them several times. So then I asked Lama: “Why don’t you offer the questions to His Holiness the Dalai Lama?” Lama said: “Oh, His Holiness has many other things to do. Why bother His Holiness?”
Lama also wrote many verses about the illusory body. He also said that until he had read about the illusory body in the writings of Lama Tsongkhapa, he had been unclear about how to achieve it. He felt that it was only by the kindness of Lama Tsongkhapa that the practices of the illusory body had been clarified.
One day Lama, Gen Jampa Wangdu and I went to see His Holiness Serkong Rinpoche. Rinpoche asked Lama, “Why did you say this about the illusory body and bliss and voidness?” Lama didn’t say that he had realizations, but merely replied, “I’m just talking like that.” He admired Lama Tsongkhapa very much, and Lama asked Rinpoche to give a teaching on the completion stage.
In the general view, I think what happened is that Lama had achievement of the illusory body when he was at Istituto Lama Tzong Khapa in Italy. I felt this from the way Lama said that he had found incredible faith in Lama Tsongkhapa and from the way Lama wrote to His Holiness Serkong Rinpoche.
After that, Lama read texts on the illusory body. When I looked through the texts that Lama took to Vajrapani Institute, I found that they were all on Guhyasamaja and the illusory body. All these things show that Lama himself had these experiences.
When some other meditator would say that they had realization of bliss and voidness, Lama used to say “Oh, some people make a big noise when they have realizations of bliss and voidness.” From his normal conversation you could understand that Lama himself had this experience. Sometimes Lama would say, “Oh, before I believed the way of experiencing bliss was more to the front, but it’s not. It looks like it’s true what some people say—it’s more to the back. It seems impossible, but in reality it’s correct.”
While Lama was so busy seeing people and giving them advice, taking teachings, writing and so forth, at the same time he was able to read various sutra and tantra texts in different rooms. When Lama was in retreat at Tushita Retreat Centre, he would have one text open in the retreat room, another open in the outer room, and yet another text outside in the garden.
This reminded me of the story that His Holiness Zong Rinpoche told about one 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
Lama also had the power to give people exactly the advice they needed. When somebody came to seek advice from Lama, even if it was a Westerner who was completely new to the Dharma, Lama’s advice would be exactly suitable. Lama had the particular power of knowing exactly the level of each person’s mind. The jobs he gave students to do would be exactly suitable for them and they would be able to do that job. Any other job would not have suited that student’s karma.
Lama had the particular power to look after everything. For example, at Kopan Monastery or Tushita Retreat Centre, Lama was able to look after everything, from me down to the dogs and puppies. He would take care of what was happening in the kitchen and the library. While Lama was incredibly busy, with hundreds of things to do, he still found time to wash the dogs that had mange.
People would sometimes criticize Lama, saying that he was not keeping the vinaya, because he touched everybody when he met them. However, I always felt when I saw Lama patting someone as he talked to them that from his head down to his feet he was completely filled with compassion. It is the same as when you have an interview with His Holiness the Dalai Lama. When you see His Holiness for the first time, at a certain point His Holiness is in the aspect of almost crying when he sees you, because of his unbearable compassion and concern for you. It was the same with Lama. Instead of being under the control of attachment, Lama was completely under the control of compassion and bodhicitta, and was able to see everything as illusory.
Another of Lama’s particular powers was the great scope of his vision; he had the ability to make huge plans to benefit so many people. So many times, when Lama’s plans were actualized, they benefited so many people, such as creating Dharma centers.
This is just very brief what I felt, the general view about Lama Yeshe’s qualities of holy body, holy speech and holy mind.
Piero: There was one part about Lama passing away, and also maybe more important, since you were with Lama up to the last moment, if Lama gave any particular instruction or advice? Usually in the West we call it a will or a testament that the person who is passing away leaves.
Rinpoche: I will talk just briefly about Lama’s passing away. I think that in this year, 1983, His Holiness the Dalai Lama’s senior tutor, His Holiness Ling Rinpoche, and His Holiness Serkong Rinpoche, and also other high lamas in other places have passed away. And many learned lamas and abbots have taken the paralyzed aspect and passed away. The way I think is that this is according to the karmic view of us sentient beings. This year, 1983, is His Holiness’s 49th year, which means astrologically that it is an obstacle year.
I think either His Holiness would pass away and the other lamas would live, or those other lamas passed away for His Holiness the Dalai Lama to live. I think there is no third option, where everybody lives long, because sentient beings don’t have enough merit for all of them to live long and to receive their guidance.
As I often say, if the container is very small, the oceans of nectar won’t fit in that small container. An extremely large container is needed to hold that much nectar. In a similar way, sentient beings don’t have enough merit for His Holiness the Dalai Lama and all those high lamas to live long. I think that due to the shortage of merit and the negative karmas created by not protecting our samayas, it came to this choice: either His Holiness lives long and the other lamas pass away, or the other lamas live and His Holiness passes away. This is what I have heard. Also, Nechung, the Tibetan government’s protector, mentioned that the small ones will take the interferences so that His Holiness the Dalai Lama can live long.
Lama passed away in a similar way. Before he left Kopan, Lama did a wrathful tantric fire puja. Lama was so eager to do this. Lama himself had the tantric realizations to do this; he had stable concentration of the generation stage, as well as completion stage realizations, such as the realization of bliss and voidness. Lama had all the qualifications. Lama felt responsibility to do that holy action. Lama said, “I’m going to do this as it looks like there’s great interference to the holy beings, particularly to the Gelugpa lamas. It doesn’t matter if I die or you die, I’m going to do this.”
At that time His Holiness Ling Rinpoche took the paralyzed aspect and did pass away. Lama wanted to do the puja for the long life of one rinpoche and the other geshes and lamas who were doing the works for sentient beings, but especially for the long life of His Holiness the Dalai Lama. Lama completely gave up himself for others; he was happy to receive the interference, to give himself for others. That is one point: Lama completely gave up himself to experience the interferences for the sake of others.
From the time Lama was in Italy—Geshe Jampa Gyatso was also there—Lama kept on saying, “Is there any benefit for me to stay? Now, there’s not so much point for me to stay. It doesn’t matter much whether I stay or not.” Lama spoke like this many times.
Also, it is not that Lama’s passing away happened without our expecting it. More than a year before he passed away, when Lama was in France, he told Denis, the director of Vajra Yogini Institute, that he would pass away. Denis is one of the directors that Lama has in his heart. Before he came to Kopan, Denis did a million Chenrezig mantras, and he’s been very kind to Nalanda and Dorje Pagmo Nunnery, giving them the opportunity to study. His is a very simple but sincere person.
Lama told Denis quite frankly, “I will leave my body this New Year.” This is exactly what happened. Lama completed his 49th year, then passed away at the beginning of the first day of the new year, after five o’clock.
When Denis later told me what Lama had said, I asked him, “What did you say?” Denis didn’t remember exactly what he had said. I told Denis that he must write to Lama and explain all the reasons that Lama should live long. I think he must have done this.
Also, here at Tushita we have various collections of the writings of high lamas. Last year, Lama went through all the texts and read how each lama had passed away. At the time I thought that Lama was in a big hurry.
I remember some years back that we had one monk called Jamyang, I think, who Lama used to like very, very much. When Jamyang was cooking for us, Lama told him, “I will live for seven years.” Lama was doing retreat at the time. Lama already had in mind how many years he was going to live. It is definitely not something that happened unexpectedly; it was not something that Lama did not plan.
When Lama came to his very last November Course at Kopan, at the end Lama’s very last teaching was the bodhisattva vow ordination. Lama talked for three or four hours. That was Lama’s last teaching.
That night Lama started vomiting. This happened all of a sudden.
Lama called Lama Lhundrup to stay next to him, and Lama Lhundrup sat on the floor wrapped in a blanket. When Lama went to the bathroom, Lama Lhundrup could not wake up; he felt kind of paralyzed and could not get up. He slowly stood up, but he couldn’t move his limbs properly. He felt cold. He said that he thought, “This is what dying means.” He couldn’t lift up his hand. Slowly he was able to lie down on a small rug. He then went to help Lama. As he touched Lama’s hands, this disease that he had just disappeared and he immediately felt much better. He then offered service to Lama.
The next morning Lama decided to go to Delhi (I think because the weather was warmer there and it was cold at Kopan), with the two Kopan monks who cooked for Lama and Karuna, who looks after Kopan Monastery and the Himalayan Yogic Institute, the center in Kathmandu [now Himalayan Buddhist Meditation Center]. Karuna made the travel arrangements and arranged the hospitals and whatever else was necessary.
I didn’t think I particularly needed to go. I asked Lama, who didn’t think it was necessary. After two weeks I felt very strongly that I should go. We had been doing various pujas for Lama, then I felt kind of uncomfortable in my mind about Lama and felt that I should go. I tried to do observations, and it came out that I should be there within five days or two days. I thought that this was not a good sign; it was a sign that Lama was very sick and may not live long.
The next morning when I was checking the time to go, Marcel came with a letter from Lama saying that Pam or Karuna understood what he said, and should come to see him, but that Lama Lhundrup and I won’t believe what Lama says.
When I heard that I should come after six days and that Lama Lhundrup and I should come to see him and that other people will believe what Lama says but Lama Lhundrup and I won’t, I felt much fear. I think other people believed exactly what Lama said. Marcel laughed, and I think even Lama Lhundrup laughed when Marcel told us this. I said, “It’s not very funny. It’s not a subject to laugh about.” I thought it was not a good sign. I felt more scared, more worried. It was not a good sign.
I was planning to go, anyway. I was deciding when to go, then Marcel came. We packed before we bought a ticket. Anyway, I had a ticket. We flew, and that evening we were in Delhi. We didn’t get to see Lama right away. Lama sent a message that he would see us at the farmhouse.
We waited one or two days, then we went to see Lama at the farmhouse. When I entered the room, Lama was sitting in a chair wrapped in a blanket, and Karuna went first and introduced us, saying, “Lama, here is Lama Zopa and Lama Lhundrup.” Lama turned around, and when I saw him, I felt that Lama had started the first stage of departure. I thought Lama had made the first step to leave. My mind was extreme. Anyway, I couldn’t accept it.
Lama was very happy to see Lama Lhundrup and me. He was smiling and saying, “Very good,” and putting his hand on our backs. We then sat down and the two monks gave us tea. Lama told us that he had enjoyed very much the mandala of great bliss. “I don’t have any problem. I enjoy very much.” Lama said to recite the prayer to offer tsog. I started, but I couldn’t complete it. So Lama Lhundrup recited the rest of the prayer. I planned to offer a long-life puja at Kopan as it had come out beneficial in the mo. Max Redlich and I made the request. It also came out for the students to give Lama many reasons as to why he should live long and to confess their past negative actions.
Lama said that the long-life puja could be done at Kopan in the coming year. Before I left Kopan, I planned to offer a long-life puja, so I had brought with me some of the offerings, including a mandala and a pearl rosary. I went directly and asked Lama to live long. Lama said, “Oh, don’t. Don’t make. Relax.” I told Max Redlich to explain to Lama the reasons he should live long, which he did. We offered according to the Lama Chöpa tradition, which Lama did not accept, then Lama accepted. So, we did it after two or three days.
Even though normally Lama was lying down, during that puja, Lama stood up and was showing the aspect of joking and very much enjoying himself. At the end of the puja, Lama said he enjoyed it very much. During that puja, just four of us—Lama Lhundrup, Max Redlich, Karuna, and me—made the offerings, and Karuna said that he was the representative of all the students.
And then Lama told Max, “I can live for two years.” The way Lama expressed it means it’s dependent on things.
One time when I was alone with Lama, Lama said that he was having various visions, that he was seeing white syllables of Chenrezig mantras absorbing one to another.
I was talking with Lama, asking him to live long; I don’t remember Lama’s exact words, but the feeling was that he could live longer. Also, one day Lama said that he should have the operation soon, as it would decide whether he would live or not. He said the right time was very important, because if it was not the right time, the operation may not be successful.
I talked in many different ways to get Lama to accept to live long. I mentioned all the directors and hard-working students at the centers, who had many cares. Afterwards Lama said, “That’s enough. Don’t speak.”
I said, “They will become crazy and their practice will degenerate.” Lama said, “They won’t become crazy, they won’t commit suicide.” I said, “In the West they will jump off bridges into the river. And their practice will degenerate, with no inspiration.” And Lama said, “It won’t happen.” I don’t remember what Lama said about the degeneration of practice.
But Lama was almost in the aspect of crying when he heard about the hard work of the students at the centers. Lama responded to that, saying, “Yes, yes, that is true.” Lama said that time, “I could live for twelve years.” I said, “I did one observation, and it seems it could be ten years if the students pray and we do the long-life puja and these other things.” It slipped out of my mouth. Lama then said, “Oh, it depends on karma and the students’ hard prayers.”
I think the reason Lama specially called for Lama Lhundrup and me, even though Lama Lhundrup has many responsibilities there at Kopan, is that if Lama had gone to a hospital in America and passed away without our seeing Lama, it would have been an unbelievably terrible thing for us. It would have been much more terrible. I think Lama wanting to see us before he left for America was a sign. At that time, when I was at Kopan, there was no plan that I would go to America.
So, I think what happened was that Lama was very, very regretful about disharmony among the students and things being done against the Buddhadharma. You can see that one of the reasons Lama passed away was that there was no point to stay.
At that dawn time, I had what might have been my last talk with Lama. There were many signs, many changes, which when they happen in an ordinary person usually means the person is dying. They had happened to Lama, but I could not completely decide that Lama would pass away. I couldn’t really decide, as it might change from that.
Because I felt something heavy was going to happen, I asked Lama, “Please consider recovering soon from the disease. The students are intelligent and they know Dharma, so gradually they will change their minds and become harmonious.” At other times when I had said that the students understand Dharma, Lama said, “Oh, oh.” When I said the students were intelligent, Lama accepted by saying, “Oh.” But when it came to the point, “They will become harmonious,” Lama didn’t say any words, but gestured very slowly with his hand in rejection. I didn’t look at Lama at first, but I felt very strong rejection from Lama’s side. I think that is one proof of how the disharmony made Lama leave.
Actually, before Lama passed away, I was more upset and fearful than Lama was, mostly to see Lama in the aspect of having the various diseases. There is worry when an ordinary person dies because of the danger that they will be born in the lower realms. I had absolutely no worry about that with Lama.
When Lama would suddenly take the aspect of heavy sickness, I would try to do something. I would do whatever came out beneficial that I could do there. When I was in Delhi with Lama Lhundrup, in the middle of the night we did Lama Chöpa and recited mantras, protector prayers, and did various short pujas, such as hooking the spirits. We did that puja twice, and so did the geshes at Kopan. Later on, when we checked, there was a good sign. Lama Lhundrup did the most prayers.
I felt that I couldn’t offer much service and there were many people who could help, and what I could do is just decide which hospital, treatment, and such things was better.
I felt that it would be unbearable to go away from Lama. I couldn’t stand it. Lama accepted to go to America and for pujas, mantras, and whatever else was beneficial to be done at the centers. It didn’t seem so suitable for Lama to be in Delhi, and His Holiness said it was a little better to have the operation than not to have it. Lama then decided to leave as quickly as possible for America. Lama stayed five days in Stanford University to do canalization and checking. They found some old marks.
The doctors then said that Lama could leave hospital. Lama wanted to go back to the new house that the Vajrapani people had put a lot of effort and time into making beautiful. Lama wanted to stay there in the house, so the doctors said, “We can do the operation within two weeks or two months, and we’ll fly to San Francisco.”
Then, four or five days after Lama came to the house, Lama took the aspect of paralysis. Lama was in hospital for about half a day, then he wanted to go back home very badly. Lama didn’t even want to wait for an ambulance; he wanted to go by car or whatever else came. He asked for this the whole afternoon. I was in that hospital with him, and I was very worried that a second stroke might happen.
As soon as His Holiness Zong Rinpoche said that according to his observation it was better for Lama to stay at home, Lama could come home again. Before we left, the doctor gave us long instructions about the danger of Lama drinking too much. Somehow Lama used to have a lot of drinks. One student, Don, who was a doctor, thought it might be dangerous, because Lama might get pneumonia. Anyway, he thought that Lama would need a hospital nearby.
There were two possible hospitals. The one that was one and a half hours from the house came out in the observation. The observation was that Lama should immediately go to the hospital. That hospital was beneficial because they took the fluid out. The operation didn’t come out for that hospital. We told the doctors that we would do the operation in a different hospital, through checking. We had several meetings with the doctor, who was very interested in all the ideas on the death process from the teachings.
I did many observations. I checked many hospitals with good reputations. Without deciding on any of them, I made a phone call to His Holiness Zong Rinpoche to request him to make the final decision. I thought to send it to the highest person on this earth who could be asked, His Holiness Zong Rinpoche, so that everybody would be happy with the decision.
The last hospital came out best. Lama was then taken there by air ambulance. Mummy Max and the Vajrapani people helped. Lama was taken by air ambulance from that hospital to Los Angeles. I spent that night alone with Lama, I think; I don’t know what happened. Lama was asking very much for Chinese food to eat. Even the next day, Lama told me and John Schwartz to have Chinese food for lunch. We went out for it, but we didn’t get to eat it.
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