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Remarkable Meetings with Lama Yeshe: Encounters with a Tibetan Mystic
By Glenn H. Mullin
Buddhism uses the simile of a blue lotus to represent events of extraordinary beauty, wonder and magic. The blue lotus appears but rarely, and always as an omen of great enlightenment activity, of a turning point in human civilization, when someone of incomparable spiritual genius appears and inspires mankind to break free from its habitual circular patterns of movement and stretch upward to new horizons of experience. When Lama Yeshe walked this earth, blue lotus flowers blossomed everywhere.
I first met him in 1972. It was a warm October morning in Dharamsala, and I had been studying meditation in the Tibetan Library for several months. Word went out that a great Tibetan lama from Nepal was in town, and that Kyabje Trijang Rinpoche, the Dalai Lama’s junior tutor, had asked him to give a talk on Dharma to Western students. Fifty or so of us – the entire Western student body in Dharamsala at the time – waited in the teaching room for him to arrive. The door opened, and we beheld a small elf-like creature standing there, a wide and somewhat mischievous smile lighting up his face, his eyes twinkling like the first evening star.
I say he was physically small, but it took some years of knowing him to decide on the matter. That first day it was impossible to tell. One moment he seemed incredibly tiny, and the next to completely fill the doorway. I had the impression that he was looking exclusively at me, but later learned that each of us had the same sense of being the exclusive focus of his attention.
And then he began to move. It wasn’t a walk, really, because his feet didn’t seem to be in action. It was somewhere between a shuffle and a glide, carrying him across the room to the teaching throne. He sat down, looked at us again, and began to chant the Muni mantra.
Words cannot express the sound that emanated from him. It was as though each individual sound wave was an explosion, as clearly defined as a wave on the ocean, and as explosive as a firecracker going off an inch from my ear. My body started shaking so hard that I thought an earthquake had struck. I don’t mean that metaphorically. Dharamsala is an earthquake zone, and I had already experienced several tremors during my residency on the mountain. It was so intense that I had to put my hands on the floor to steady myself. Earthquakes can be scary things. “Calm yourself, Glenn,” I said to myself. “Dharamsala tremors usually last only a second or two.” But it continued.
The lama sat there chanting, seemingly oblivious to the danger we were in. I wanted to jump and shout an alarm, to scream out words saying that we should all leave the building before it was flattened. I tossed my eyes to the waterbowls on the altar to check how intense the quake was. To my amazement, the water was utterly still. I looked back at Lama Yeshe. His eyes were on me, like suns blazing across a thousand universes.
Well, I thought to myself, so this is what Tsong Khapa meant when he said that, on meeting with the guru, some people clutch at their breast in fear.
Two and a half months later I left Dharamsala on pilgrimage to the Buddhist holy places. The first planned stop on my itinerary was Bodh Gaya, the place of Buddha’s enlightenment. Before leaving I asked my philosophy teacher, Geshe Ngawang Dargey, if there was anything in particular that I should do while in Bodh Gaya. Geshe-la replied, “The Dalai Lama’s senior tutor, Kyabje Ling Rinpoche, will be giving some special teachings there. Visit him and ask his advice.” Therefore shortly after arriving I made my way to the main temple and requested an audience with Kyabje Rinpoche. The meeting was set for the next day. I entered the room, offered the traditional three prostrations, and popped the question. Kyabje Rinpoche picked up his little box with his divination dice, threw the dice a few times, and then replied, “In a few days I’m giving tantric initiation into the Yamantaka mandala. If you think you can do a few of the mantras everyday, come to it.”
I didn’t know much about tantra at that point in my spiritual career, but the thought of receiving initiation of directly from the Dalai Lama’s senior tutor, a lama legendary for his learning, wisdom and accomplishment, spurred me to take on the commitment. No translation was to be provided, so we five Westerners who were being permitted to attend the two-day ceremony would be more like sleeping dogs than active participants. This didn’t dissuade us. At the end of the first day Kyabje Rinpoche had a young monk tell us that we should all watch our dreams that night, and that they would be significant. I knew nothing about the Yamantaka Mandala until that evening, and had never even seen a photograph of it; yet from the moment of falling asleep until I awoke the next morning I received a most intense and remarkable introductory course. And it strongly involved Lama Yeshe.
The dream began with me sitting in a room reading a book. I remember being in a rather mundane state of mind in the beginning, but by the time I came to the end of the first chapter my sense of presence had undergone a distinct transformation. At one point the entire universe suddenly dissolved into light, and there was just me sitting in a chamber of light, my eyes locked in awe to the words on the pages. Each passage filled me with a wave of ecstasy, like being tickled within every cell in my body by a feather made of light that swept up and down. I would read a passage, and then be so overwhelmed with a sense of profundity, wonder and awe that the joy would wash over me like a great wave, totally encompassing every aspect of my being. The joy was so intense that I rolled over and over on the dream floor, laughing like a mad man and clutching the book to my breast as though my life depended upon it. The night seemed like a million eons, as I plunged deeper and deeper into the text, alternating between reading and being overcome by an ecstasy that hurled me into a realm of uncontrollable laughter and bliss. Again and again billions of Yamantakas would fly at me like snowflakes driven by a wild wind, melt into me, and fill me with joy.
By early dawn I had almost completed the book. Somewhere in the process the bliss and awe became so intense that my entire being seemed to contract into a single impulse, as though I were the smallest, most dense speck of substance in existence. This seemed to last for an immeasurable period of time; and then again millions of mandalas dissolved into me, followed by a massive explosion. The only image that conveys the experience is that of having an atom bomb of bliss explode at the center of one’s body, with no loss of consciousness. My body expanded outward at an incredible speed, until it filled the vast extent of space. I had the distinct sense in my dream of having achieved enlightenment.
It occurred to me that I did not yet know the authorship of this most astounding book I was reading. There were a few pages left in it, but I could not contain my curiosity, and skipped to the colophon at the end. The words stated, “Composed by Lama Thubten Yeshe.”
In the morning I awoke, and my dream enlightenment evaporated. Nonetheless I had the distinct sense that a subtle shift in my center of gravity had taken place.
Such was my second encounter with Lama Yeshe.
For the remainder of the twelve years that I lived in Dharamsala I met Lama many times. He usually came to town twice a year: once in the spring to attend the Dalai Lama’s annual Losar teachings and initiations; and then again in the autumn in order to make meditation retreat. He always met with the Dalai Lama and the Dalai Lama’s two gurus in order to seek their advice on his own teaching activities around the world.
During the 1970s His Holiness would give one public discourse in the main temple in Dharamsala, and then a more exclusive tantric teaching in his private chapel. His teaching style in the private discourse would be to stop at subtle passages and challenge the senior abbots, tulkus and geshes to debate with him on possible interpretations. One year he taught Tsong Khapa’s commentary to the Heruka Chakrasamvara Tantra, entitled Throwing Light on Hidden Meanings. One particular passage brought him to a halt, and he called for interpretations. None of the dozen or so attempts that were forthcoming seemed to impress him, and he easily dispensed with them by means of a few debate movements. After half an hour or so His Holiness chuckled and said, “Well, we have the abbots of both Gyume and Gyuto tantric colleges here, but nobody seems to be able to figure out this line.” He then suggested that for the moment the interpretation offered by Bakula Rinpoche be tentatively accepted, but that everyone should regard the point as unsettled. He then continued with his reading.
Lama Yeshe was not an abbot, tulku or geshe, and therefore was not seated in a front row. Nonetheless he waved to His Holiness in order to indicate that he wanted to offer a suggestion on the matter. “I think it’s just a spelling mistake,” he said.
His Holiness asked, “Well then, where is it?” Nobody answered, and so eventually His Holiness commented, “If we can’t say what the mistake is, then we can’t say it’s a mistake. We might just as well go back to Bakula’s interpretation.” He then again began to read on. A moment later Tara Tulku waved at His Holiness. “I agree with Lama Yeshe,” he said. “It’s a spelling mistake.” Tara Tulku then proceeded to point out how it was the participle ni, located between the auxiliary verb and main verb, and that this should read as mi. Mi is a negation, thus 100% turning the meaning of the sentence from a positive to a negative. His Holiness burst into laughter, looked at Lama Yeshe and said, “Today this yogi from Nepal has put all our greatest scholars to shame.”
I relate this story because during his life Lama Yeshe became renowned as a great meditator and mystic; but in scriptural learning he could stand with the best.
In 1977 I went to visit Kyabje Ling Rinpoche in order to check a few obscure points in a text I was translating. When I arrived at his house his attendant told me, “You can go in, but keep the audience to about half an hour, because he has a monk in with him at the moment.” I entered Kyabje Rinpoche’s room, and was delighted to see that the visitor monk was none other than Lama Yeshe. I put a dozen or so questions to Kyabje Rinpoche, and he answered all of them without difficulty. Then one passage came up on which he expressed doubt. He asked Lama Yeshe for his opinion. Lama at first hesitated to speak, for Kyabje Rinpoche was the Ganden Tripa, the official head of the Gelugpa, and thus the final authority on matters of scriptural interpretation; but Rinpoche would have none of it, and began forcing Lama to argue with him on the passage. Then for fifteen minutes they both forgot my presence, and spun off in a traditional debate on the passage. They then burst into laughter; Lama looked at me and said, “It probably means…,” and gave me their conclusion.
After my audience I sat and meditated in the field above Rinpoche’s house. A couple of hours later Lama came walking along the path. His health looked terrible, and he leaned heavily on his cane as he moved. He saw me, and came over and sat with me. At the time we were all worried about his health; he had had a bad heart for years, and in 1974 some doctors in America had told him that if he didn’t have an operation he would be dead within three months. He had telegrammed Kyabje Trijang Rinpoche for advice, and had been told that it was better for him to rely upon his meditation. I asked him how his health was holding up. He laughed and replied, “In 1974 the American doctors told me I’d be dead in three months. When I went back the next year they looked at me and said, ‘What! You again! You not dead yet?’ They said the same thing when I visited them in ’76, and then again this year. So I don’t know. Something seems to be keeping me alive.”
A few weeks later I visited him in his meditation hut at Tushita on the mountain above Dharamsala. He was just completing a retreat. When I entered the room he stood up on his bed, jumped over the table in front of it as nimbly as would a twelve year old boy, rushed over to me, and touched my forehead to his. “I tell you a secret baby,” he said. “The more meditation, the more happy.” His walking stick was nowhere to be seen. He stuffed my pockets with some Hayagriva healing pills that he had made during his retreat and sent me on my way.
My physical encounters with Lama were always magical, enlightening and inspiring. They remain as vivid as though they had occurred only a few hours ago. Each one of them left me with some lesson in spiritual living. Yet even more remarkable were his appearances in my dreams.
Perhaps the most amazing was a dream that occurred the last day of my first Yamantaka retreat. In my dream I was sitting on my meditation cushion, when I heard a sound from the far corner of the room. I looked over, and there was Lama. He was dressed in his yellow under-robes, and looking at me intensely. A black nun entered the room, and the two began caressing each other. I was utterly shocked, for they both were ordained, and thus held vows of celibacy. He glanced over at me again, his eyes burning into me like sunlight concentrated through a magnifying glass. Then, without looking away, he slowly pulled the nun toward him, and the two sat in sexual union. His gaze never left me for a moment, but his face began slowly to transform, becoming every more passionate and wrathful, until he had become Yamantaka. The black nun similarly transformed, although she wasn’t paying any attention to me at all. Both of them were emitting deep growls of laughter. Then he very slowly and intently placed one of his hands to his face, inserted two fingers into one of his eye-sockets, and ripped out the eyeball. The empty socket blazed with light, and droplets of blood spilled out from it. The other eye held its gaze intensely upon me. Then he reached out and placed the extracted, bloody eyeball in my hand. It was hot, and melted into my palm.
I awoke from the dream, my body covered in perspiration. I looked down at the palm of my right hand. A blister the size of a marble had formed where the eyeball had been placed.
The great beings, it is said, live for as long as the meritorious energy of the trainees remains strong. When the meritorious energy wanes, they pass away in order to give an example of impermanence to their disciples, and to inspire the world with a sense of the transmission of responsibility from one generation to another.
Lama’s passing certainly was a combination of the two. In Europe there was bickering in one of his Dharma centers, even squabbling over property rights. As the scriptures put it, it was a bad omen, “…like a vulture in a peacock garden.” I was passing through London in late 1983, when the bad omens were at their worst. Those close to Lama were extremely worried, but there seemed to be no way to turn the flow of events.
Geshe Rabten, one of Lama’s childhood gurus, was approached by one of Lama’s Australian monk disciples for a divination on the matter. Geshe-la replied, “If he lives until the new year sunrise, he’ll live for another twelve years.” Geshe-la recommended that a number of prayers and rituals be done in order to increase merits and mitigate obstacles. Unfortunately the monk mentioned this to Lama, who commanded him not to have the rituals done. He passed away shortly before the new year sunrise.
Later when the Australian monk related the story to Lama Zopa, Lama Zopa wept and said, “How I wish you would have spoken to me about Geshe Rabten’s advice, and not to Lama.”
Yet even the darkest clouds also have their blessings, bringing shade from the hot sun and releasing rain that brings new life and beauty to the planet. I happened to be in Dharamsala some two and a half years after Lama’s passing, when a young Spanish boy was first brought to Dharamsala for testing and certification as Lama Yeshe’s reincarnation. He was only fourteen months old at the time, and had just learned to walk. When he was brought to the house of the late Kyabje Ling Rinpoche, where I had witnessed Kyabje Rinpoche and Lama debate over a scriptural passage almost a decade earlier, the child spontaneously prostrated to Rinpoche’s throne. On entering the temple room at Tushita where Lama had frequently received people in audience, the child instantly ran up to the altar and, from among the many images on the altar, picked up the statue that had been Lama’s favorite. He then proceeded to walk around the room and touch it to the heads of all who were present as an act of blessing them, much in the same manner as Lama had frequently touched it to the heads of those who had come to visit him.
A traditional Tibetan account of a great master usually concludes by saying something to the effect that the deeds of the mighty bodhisattvas are beyond ordinary comprehension, and that what can be put into words is like the drops of water on a blade of grass compared to the waters of the oceans.
This certainly was true of the life of Lama Yeshe. One could easily write a 1,000 page book on the subject of a single meeting with him. He was born of humble stock, and was never recognized as a tulku; but he became a teacher to tulkus. He completed his geshe studies, but chose quiet meditation on the mountains over the prestige that results from standing for the geshe exam. He held no exalted position in the Tibetan spiritual hierarchy, but rose to become a mahasiddha in a garden of siddhas. His life was an example of the purity, freedom, power and dignity that is aroused by application to the Buddha’s teachings, and he dedicated it to the attempt to inspire these qualities within others.
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