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‘I Realized That My Life Couldn’t Be the Same Again’
ROAD TO KOPAN
For many long-time students of Lama Yeshe and Lama Zopa Rinpoche, Kopan Monastery in Kathmandu, Nepal, is where they first met the teachings of Buddha and where they saw their lives changed profoundly. Mandala has been collecting the stories of how early students came to Kopan Hill in our ongoing “Road to Kopan” series.
Australian nun Ven. Margaret McAndrew arrived in Kopan in 1974 and shares her story in this issue’s “Road to Kopan.”
When I think back to my first days with the Lamas and the Dharma, it is strange to look at how much has happened since. We were a group of eager, enthusiastic people, mostly quite young (although I was relatively old at 30). In those days, there were a lot of young people from many countries drifting round Asia on the cheap, mostly influenced to some degree by the hippie movement. But you didn’t say they were “hippies” – you had to call them “freaks.” When anything interesting was happening in that part of the world, the news would spread like wildfire through the travelers’ network, and one of the big items of interest was “the Kopan courses” and “the Lamas.”
In 1973 and early 1974, I was wandering around India and Nepal. I had reached a point in my life where I couldn’t see my way ahead. I was fulfilling a long-time urge to travel in exotic places, but I also hoped to learn some wisdom in the cultures I was traveling through, and had the idea that meditation might help me deal with my discontented state of mind. But I wasn’t interested in taking up a religion! Having been brought up Church of England, and failing to find the answers I was looking for as I grew up, I thought I had done with religion. However, I was very interested in finding out more about Eastern systems and collected a list of monasteries, courses, ashrams and gurus (some quite dodgy!).
First, I did a couple of Theravada courses, but although I did not really connect with the meditation technique, the small amount of Buddhist philosophy explained at the courses made me thirsty to learn more. Meanwhile, I kept meeting people who talked enthusiastically about Tibetan Buddhism, and at one of those courses, I found myself at Bodhgaya just as thousands of Tibetans and others were gathering for a Kalachakra initiation with His Holiness the Dalai Lama. After the course, I became caught up in this fascinating environment. It was here that I first heard of bodhichitta at a summary in English of His Holiness’ teaching. I also had my first glimpse of Lama Yeshe and Lama Zopa Rinpoche when I joined Western students who were visiting them in a big tent. Lama Yeshe was very outgoing, greeting everyone and chatting and laughing, while Lama Zopa Rinpoche sat quietly reading a text. I was particularly drawn to Lama Zopa Rinpoche as he fitted my preconceived idea of a lama! I was assured by students I met that if I wanted to hear teachings on Buddhism, I would hear them at the Kopan course as Rinpoche taught at length morning, noon and night. All these events led me to decide to do the next Kopan course in April 1974.
When I arrived at Kopan Monastery, I had a great feeling of being at home and of a very special, peaceful and joyful atmosphere. In those days, the temple was like a little jewel on a rural hillside in the beautiful Kathmandu Valley. The buildings barely contained the young monks and so the meditation course was held in a large tent, while course students were packed into buildings belonging to the Nepalese locals.
On the first day, Lama Zopa Rinpoche entered and spent the first 15 minutes or so doing a mysterious ritual in Tibetan with candles and little cakes and lots of pungent incense. Then he won us with his first words, joking that we wouldn’t learn much from a primitive little boy from the Himalayan mountains.
I soon found that Rinpoche was a wonderful teacher, provided you were prepared to do the work of listening and taking it in. At that course, he spent a particularly long time talking about death, impermanence and the lower realms, and the harm done by attachment to the eight worldly concerns. Many of the students found this very discomforting. Conditions at the course were also extremely basic, and a lot of people walked out. However, I was so happy that nothing bothered me, and the teachings made total sense in the light of my life experiences. It was about three days into the course that I realized that in the lam-rim I was finding the understanding that I had been looking for to make my life meaningful, and that this was something for my whole life, not just an interesting experience. Lama Zopa Rinpoche also spent a long time each day talking about bodhichitta, inspiring us with the ideal of loving kindness.
During the first part of the course we didn’t receive teachings from Lama Yeshe, but the old students talked a lot about his wonderful qualities. During the second half of the course we were taking the Eight Mahayana Precepts and keeping silence, and things got very intense. Then one day Lama came in and gave us a talk which had us all laughing and that eased the difficulty in our minds about topics like the lower realms. Lama seemed to know exactly what was bothering us and how to make us feel good about the teachings. For example, he told us about a climber whose body was lying frozen on Mt. Everest and said that if the consciousness was still with the body, that is the cold hell. Suddenly the concepts we had been struggling with seemed to fall into place in the larger picture, and we all felt the impression of Lama’s powerful wisdom and loving kindness which radiated from him in a tangible way. It was clear that with Lama Zopa Rinpoche and Lama Yeshe we had beings who were not just teaching words, but embodied what they were teaching at a very special level.
After that course, I realized that my life couldn’t be the same again. My short-term goal came to be to remain in the subcontinent, giving up ideas of further travel except for that related to the Dharma, and to stay with the Lamas and be at Kopan as much as possible. For the next few years, I attended all the November Courses at Kopan and when visas ran out, some of us students would go to Dharamsala to study at the Library of Tibetan Works and Archives or do retreat. After a couple of years, Lama Yeshe accepted my request to become a nun. I joined a growing group of Western Sangha.
Lama was very concerned that we should receive proper training. While we were at Kopan, Lama used to get us to live, study and do morning puja together. This was an incredibly valuable experience for a group of diverse and rather egotistical young people, who became shaped into members of a functional community. And it was something that we would carry with us to our future in Dharma centers and projects all over the world.
Meanwhile, various students, lay and Sangha, were returning to their home countries, often reluctantly. This led to the Lamas being invited to go on a world tour in 1976 and the subsequent springing up of FPMT centers all over the world. It was very exciting to hear of all these developments, but those of us who were able to be in India and Nepal just wanted to stay as long as possible and to be near the Lamas as much as we could. In those days, with fewer students, we had lots of personal contact with the Lamas. Lama Yeshe used to walk around and chat with the students, or arrange tea parties in the gompa, and we had public exams where Lama Zopa Rinpoche questioned one student at a time on their presentation of a lam-rim topic.
Even when the Lamas weren’t there, Kopan was a fascinating place, with the lively young monks running around supervised by a very special being, Lama Lhundrup, and by the impressive Lama Pasang, against a colorful background of the Nepalese countryside and its traditional people. The contingent of Westerners included a number of charismatic personalities, such as Anila Ann McNeil, who led my first meditation course. The only dark note was our discovery about Lama’s bad health. Again and again, Western doctors gave him only six months to live, but somehow he kept on going, staying with us for 10 years from the first time I met him.
There were pujas with the young monks with beautiful chanting and music, visits from great lamas such as Gomchen Rinpoche and Song Rinpoche, and special occasions such as pilgrimages to holy places in Kathmandu Valley. Lama felt that we should honor our Western backgrounds by respecting Christianity and celebrating Christmas each year with a Chenrezig puja and a lunch-time feast on the hillside. It was at these occasions that Lama gave the wonderful talks collected in Silent Mind, Holy Mind.
When I eventually had to go home in 1978, there were several new centers in Australia, and Lama first sent me to Tara Institute in Melbourne, my home city. There were quite a number of old students of the Lamas in Melbourne, and needless to say we missed the Lamas and Nepal’s holy atmosphere. Our aim was to establish the centers as places for the Dharma teachings to flourish and where the Lamas would come sometimes to teach and inspire us.
There was no doubt that the Lamas knew our minds and could respond to our prayers and unspoken thoughts. In the early days at Chenrezig Institute, when the Lamas were visiting, I very much wanted to have a one-to-one meeting with Lama Yeshe, but didn’t feel entitled to request one. Instead, I prayed to Lama to make it happen if that would be good. One day, in a big sunhat, he just popped up out of the long grass that grew all over the hill in those days, where he had been sitting waiting. We had quite a good talk before the inevitable group of students started to gather.
Later on, I was to spend time at many FPMT centers, and I became involved with the setting up of Chenrezig Nuns’ Community. Looking back at the early days and the development in the Dharma now in Australia and around the world, I feel profoundly grateful for the mandala envisioned by our Lamas and enacted by so many dedicated people carrying out their advice.
Ven. Margaret returned to Australia in 1978 and lived at both Tara Institute and Chenrezig Institute for several years (and worked as a cook in both places). She spent six months in the Dorje Phagmo Nunnery in France before finally settling at Chenrezig Institute in the late ‘80s. She was one of founding members of Chenrezig Nuns’ Community, which was formally established in 1990. Since then she has been resident there apart from stints as a visiting teacher in Taiwan, Adelaide, Gosford and Sydney. For the past several years, she has been the CNC gekyö (disciplinarian), a role she continues to play despite her diagnosis of bile duct cancer in December 2012.
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