Big Love: The Life and Teachings of Lama Yeshe

We are delighted to offer you another taste from Big Love: The Life and Teachings of Lama Yeshe. This chapter is drawn from Volume 1 and begins in 1969 as the lamas and their early Western students go on pilgrimage to Lawudo and begin to establish Kopan Monastery. The author, Adele Hulse, one of Lama’s earliest students, skillfully weaves the intimate stories of these early Western Dharma seekers with details of how special Lama was and how he connected with people from all over the world and all walks of life. Multimedia presentation created by Megan Evart. Learn more at www.LamaYeshe.com/BigLove

Zopa Rinpoche and the Lawudo Lama

Every twelve years the Sherpa people of Solu Khumbu traveled from their mountain homes down to Kathmandu for a traditional pilgrimage tour of the holy Buddhist sites there. In the early spring of 1969, Zopa Rinpoche’s mother and other family members embarked on this pilgrimage, traveling to Kathmandu together with their friends and neighbors. But Zopa Rinpoche’s relatives had an even more compelling reason to head to Kathmandu that spring. They intended to beg Lama Zopa Rinpoche, the incarnation of the previous Lawudo Lama, to come back home to Solu Khumbu.

Lawudo
Lawudo
Looking east from above Thangme
Looking east from above Thangme
Rinpoche in Rolwaling, 1952
Rinpoche in Rolwaling, 1952

Dawa Chötar, the little boy who would eventually be ordained as Thubten Zopa, was born in the small town of Thangme, below the village of Lawudo, on 31 December 1945. His father had died when he was only two, leaving his impoverished mother with four children to raise, one of whom had died at the age of nine. He had an older brother, Sangye, and an older sister, Ngawang Samten. They dressed in rags and had little to eat. When he was barely able to walk, Dawa Chötar began trying to make his way up the mountain to Lawudo, a two-hour trek across a river and straight up the mountainside. He insisted the cave up there was his home and played at giving initiations. He could name, apparently from memory, all the benefactors of the Lawudo Lama.

Lawudo Lama, by Jampa Chökyi
Lawudo Lama, by Jampa Chökyi

The Lawudo Lama had been a married salt trader with a son and a daughter. Married lamas are common in the Nyingma tradition, to which he belonged. He had decided to spend his life in retreat in a cave once used to store radishes. As he was digging it out, he discovered a beautiful space marked with sacred signs. But just as he was about to move into the cave, he was struck with paralysis. Later, he declared his disease a special blessing because it meant he could meditate undisturbed, having been rendered useless for anything else. So for thirteen years he sat in meditation on a stone seat in this cave, his hair left uncut and dressed always in an old white fur coat and a pair of big round earrings. It is said that during his cremation rainbow clouds filled the sky, flower-shaped snowflakes fell and the air was filled with music.

Three years later a two-year-old boy from one of the poorest families in the area began insisting he was the Lawudo Lama’s reincarnation. His relatives were embarrassed, but one night the late Lama’s daughter, Karzang, secretly visited the boy’s home with articles that had belonged to her father. Little Dawa Chötar identified them immediately. He was then subjected to public examinations, passed every test and was officially recognized. When he was four years old, an uncle took him to Rolwaling Monastery, two days’ hard walk from Thangme. The boy, by then called Ang Gyältsen, spent seven years there before, in 1956, his uncles took him to Tibet, where he was ordained Thubten Zopa at Domo Geshe Rinpoche’s Dungkar Monastery in Phagri. Not long after that, it was 1959 and young Thubten Zopa Rinpoche had to escape to India.

Judy Weitzner meets the lamas

Judy Weitzner: “I first met the lamas at Max’s house on February 20. I even wrote the date in my diary. Max often invited me and my husband, Chip, over to her place on the weekends. Sometimes she sent her driver, Ram, to collect us in her 1932 candy-apple red Hudson Eight Phaeton (one of three ever built) that had been carried over the mountains on bamboo poles by Sherpas many years before and was believed to be one of the first cars to arrive in the country. It was one of a pair ordered for the king and the prime minister.[] Max’s Nepalese servant, Tiger, a dwarf, often sat up back in the rumble seat wearing a brocade hat.

Max with her Hudson
Max with her Hudson

“One Saturday she mentioned she had run into an old friend who might be dropping by later. Max had quite a large network of people from around the world and from all sectors of society. Her parties included everyone from embassy personnel to local shopkeepers. You never knew who would come in the door. Everyone was attracted to Max’s charismatic charm and enviable style.

“That afternoon Zina, the ‘Russian princess’— Hollywood starlet, French fashion model, Tibetan nun—swept in with ‘her lamas.’ That was how I met Lama Yeshe and Lama Zopa. Zina was the queen bee and the lamas were like her exotic pets. She captivated our attention and it was soon obvious there were two queen bees in the hive.

“Shirley Black, an American scholar of Buddhist art and architecture, moved into a cottage across the street from us. She had come to Nepal to help Losang Dorje, a monk from Samten Ling, take up a scholarship at her college. Max and I invited her to dinner at the American Club Restaurant. It was an unspoken rule that the American Club was only for Americans, so Losang was not invited. Max was blind to ethnic and social barriers and didn’t mind upsetting the straight-laced Americans, so she invited Zina and the two lamas to come along. Well, it was culture shock all round! Comments were made behind napkins and glances cast our way. As usual, Max was dripping in brocades and embroidery.

“This was the lamas’ first experience of American food and I can still remember Lama Yeshe’s incredulous expression when we introduced him to mayonnaise, which was a rare and highly sought-after commodity in Kathmandu. It was great fun for all of us. We giggled and laughed, breaching the stiff decorum of the restaurant dining room. “Then things got worse, as loud squeals and screeches were heard from the ladies’ room. Zina had gone in there and been mistaken for a man. She came out laughing, but the shocked woman was not amused and spoke with the manager. Fortunately we had all finished dinner by that time, so we beat a hasty retreat.

“It was dark when we left the restaurant, but the top of Swayambhu hill was completely aglow. In those years there weren’t any streetlights in Kathmandu, so this was highly unusual. What was going on? Max directed Ram to drive us up there, which was not easy in the impossibly long Hudson. We found that floodlights had been erected by a French film crew. Then Zina got a glimpse of the director and yelled, ‘Georges!’[] He turned around and yelled, ‘Zina!’ and they threw their arms around each other. More proof that Zina seemed to know just about everyone in the world!”

The first trek to Lawudo

Lama Zopa Rinpoche had not returned to his birthplace since leaving for Tibet as a young child. Spring was perfect weather for trekking and he wanted to go to Lawudo. Word was sent ahead and a trekking party formed. It included Thubten Yeshe, Zopa Rinpoche, Max (who once again paid the lamas’ expenses), Zina, Jacqueline Fagan (a New Zealander who had been at Villa Altomont), and Judy and Chip Weitzner. Judy, Chip and Max were on their spring break from school. There was also a German photographer named Lorenz Prinz, who always wore a jaunty beret, and his female assistant, Christina. Prinz was completing a book of photographs of the Himalayas. He had experience with trekking in Nepal and helped organize everything, even managing to hire the airplane belonging to the King of Nepal. He also told the Injis what clothes to bring.

Max on route to Lawudo
Max on route to Lawudo

Judy Weitzner later recalled, “Trekking was really something in 1969. We had to scrounge and scramble to come up with the right equipment and food. In those days Kathmandu wasn’t full of trekking equipment and used gear from many mountaineering expeditions as it is today. On the morning of April 5 we all turned up at the airport. Max showed up in this long brocade chuba, a silk blouse and flowers stuck in the beautiful long wig she’d put on over her afro. She was always equipped for fashion but seldom for function. I rolled my eyes and said, ‘Max, we’ll be walking in the mountains for days!’ She pulled up her skirts and pointed to a pair of Nepalese army boots, her only gesture to actual hiking gear.

“Zina was in charge of equipping the lamas for the trek, but they showed up in flip-flop sandals and their robes—no boots, no jackets, no hats. I was mad at Zina for not taking more care, but they seemed content with what they had. We waited awhile for the pilot, but when one finally arrived, he announced that he was a replacement for the regular pilot, who was sick. The new pilot said he had never flown this route before but was willing to give it a try. The plane was a STOL (short take-off and landing) Twin Pioneer.

“We literally tied ourselves into our seats with ropes. Unfortunately, I already knew from a Canadian consultant to Royal Nepal Airlines that the landing strip at Lukla [] was so short it took a very experienced pilot to handle it safely, but figured they’d never jeopardize an entire airplane just for some charter money. I was wrong! It was the first time the lamas had flown anywhere. They sat at the back and smiled, while their malas clicked non-stop. It was the most harrowing flight I have ever been on. We were in abject terror, almost touching the mountains in one moment then dropping like a stone when we hit air pockets. Christina, Prinz’s assistant, fainted dead away. At Lukla the pilot had to climb high and then spiral down to approach the short runway. So we were rushing headlong toward this sheer mountain face when the pilot suddenly spun the plane around in a U-turn, bringing it to a dead stop facing the way we had come. We all piled out of the plane onto the ground as quickly as possible!

Lukla airstrip, ca 1972
Lukla airstrip, ca 1972

“Some Sherpas approached and Prinz hired them to carry some of the gear. We paid them the going rate, which was about three dollars a day in those days. We regrouped at a teahouse in Lukla then started a very pleasant, fairly flat walk up the mountain valley, following the trail of the Dudh Kosi River. I was lulled into thinking trekking wasn’t really so tough after all. We spent that night in a Sherpa home of some relatives of one of our guides. They seemed to have cousins, aunts and brothers in every village! The doorways in Sherpa homes are quite low and Prinz hit his head on the low door lintel when he entered. This was serious, because he had undergone brain surgery not long before and the skull section that had been removed had not been replaced—thus the jaunty beret. Despite our worry, he was very stoic and determined to continue.

“The inside of the house was very dark as the walls were covered with soot from the kitchen fire. Along the walls hung a graduated series of beautiful handmade copper pots, quite unlike the tacky aluminum you could buy in Kathmandu. Chip and I managed to purchase one of these pots before the end of our trek. I had brought some small boxes of salt with me to give as gifts, since I had heard that Sherpas valued salt. I was surprised when they poured it directly into their mouths!

“In the morning Max wanted a bath. There was neither sufficient hot water nor a bathtub available for bathing. The family was put to work hauling water, heating it over a fire, then filling the largest washtub they owned for Max.

A Solu Khumbu bridge
A Solu Khumbu bridge

“The trail was still easy and so we strolled along for quite a while. We had to cross the river, using the bridge suspended high above the water. There were cables for handgrips and cables holding boards end to end—except where there were gaps between them!—where we were supposed to walk. The bridge swayed and bounced as we walked across one by one. I was afraid the weight of two people might bring the bridge down, but the Sherpas were all giggling and laughing at our obvious fear. They said the bridge had been constructed under Sir Edmund Hillary’s direction, so there was nothing to worry about. Nevertheless, I found it terrifying.

“As we continued, we were all scattered along the path quite far apart from each other. Max and I were walking together. Suddenly the trail came to a dead end right at the base of a mountain. Not far ahead I could see a very steep path leading straight up, which was the path we needed to follow. I just couldn’t believe it was the right one. Still, we had no choice but to start climbing. As we trudged upward, whenever we needed a hand or a boost, Lama Yeshe made an appearance. I was nearing exhaustion when I came upon a Sherpa serving hot tea to the lamas. He had hiked down from Lama Zopa’s village. So we all sat and had tea on the side of the mountain. I was slowly getting the picture that Lama Zopa was an important person and the Sherpas were very happy he was coming to visit. We could often hear them saying, ‘Lama coming! Lama coming!’

Lama looks on as Rinpoche, the Lawudo Lama, blesses a Sherpa woman on the way to Lawudo, 1969
Lama looks on as Rinpoche, the Lawudo Lama, blesses a Sherpa woman on the way to Lawudo, 1969

“When we had just about reached Namche Bazaar,[] Max and I sat down on the trail overlooking the famous market town of the Himalayas. I watched the huge eagles gliding effortlessly on the updrafts and felt envious. I was tired and crabby and needed to muster energy to walk to the guesthouse where we were to spend the night. It had turned cold and although I was wearing my down jacket, I was still freezing. Lama Yeshe came along and sat next to us, admiring the view. He took my cold hands in his to warm them up. Suddenly I was jarred out of my self-pity and noticed what was going on. Here I was, dressed in multiple layers and still cold, while Lama was in a sleeveless shirt and light robes, warm as toast and trying to take care of me. I asked him, ‘How can you do this? How can you be warm and I am cold, even with my down jacket?’ He said, ‘Oh, that’s easy, dear. In Tibet we learn this meditation to keep us warm. It is very necessary in cold weather.’ I had been plagued with cold all my life, so I longed to learn it. Many years later I understood that Lama was talking about tummo, inner fire meditation,[] which he later taught to us.

“The next thing that happened is really hard to believe—but it did happen. Lama had a canteen of cold tea. He asked if I wanted something to drink and I said yes, but not tea. I was sick of it. ‘What would you like, dear?’ he asked. I told him Coca-Cola. There was no Coca-Cola in Nepal back then and I doubt Lama knew what I was talking about. Nevertheless, he poured some liquid out of the canteen and gave it to Max. Suddenly she said, ‘Look, Judy, it’s Coke!’ I looked. It was carbonated. Bubbles were moving up the side of the cup. I tasted it, and it was Coca-Cola! There on the mountainside I realized that Lama Yeshe was totally amazing and powerful. We all laughed and laughed and I forgot all about my exhaustion and bad mood.

“We stayed in several different guesthouses or private homes that night. Zina and Jacqueline ran into the French filmmakers, Georges Luneau and Cecile Roulet, and stayed across the village with them. The lamas were invited to stay with a Sherpa family. Lorenz Prinz showed up that evening with a terrible cold that was quickly becoming worse. We were quite worried about him, so when we discovered there was a small hospital not too far away that had been established by Sir Edmund Hillary, we planned to take him there the next day.

Lawudo trek, Zina and Lama on the right
Lawudo trek, Zina and Lama on the right

The next morning our little group split into two. Zina, Jacqueline and the lamas headed for Lawudo, while the rest of us trekked toward Kunde hospital, near Khumjung, almost due north of Namche. We escorted Prinz to the hospital there, where he was diagnosed with pneumonia and told he needed to stay for a couple of days. Max and I stayed in the beautiful gompa room of another Sherpa home that night, where there was an elaborate altar and many statues and texts. The next morning, we woke to a landscape covered in snow and decided to take a rest day. From the window of the room in which we had slept we had a spectacular view of Ama Dablam, a beautiful mountain situated almost due south of Mount Everest. Ama means mother or grandmother, while dablam means necklace or charm box, thus Mother’s Charm Box, which refers to the charm box or pendant many Sherpa women wear around their necks containing blessed objects and holy relics for protection.

Sherpa family shrine room, Namche Bazaar
Sherpa family shrine room, Namche Bazaar

“Max and I spent a magical day in deep philosophical discussion about the meaning and purpose of our lives. We looked up at the gaze of the buddhas on the altar and wondered at what was contained in the beautifully wrapped texts. It was a turning point for both of us. Max decided she wanted to change the direction of her life. For me, Eastern philosophy had been an intellectual pursuit until then, but now I felt my heart opening at a deeper level.

“We were up early the next morning and knew the day was going to be hard. We were heading toward the monastery of Tengboche, which was located at an even higher altitude. The Sherpas pointed out the way and I discovered that going downhill is definitely not easier than climbing up. One ends up with ‘Sahib’s knee’ from the repeated impact taken by the knees when walking downhill for long periods. We spent a couple of days at Tengboche and then headed back toward Namche Bazaar. On the way back to Namche I felt stronger and more in charge of myself than I ever had in my entire life. For me this trek had been an incredible integration of body, mind and spirit.

Namche, 1973
Namche, 1973
Lawudo Gompa, 1973
Lawudo Gompa, 1973

“When I arrived back at Namche Bazaar, it was like coming home,” Judy continued. “Chip, however, decided he had to go to Lawudo and practically flew down the trail right past the police post that checked trekking permits. The police chased him for a while but he was too fast for them. He caught up with the others just as Lama Zopa’s party was starting up the hill to the Lawudo Lama’s cave. The cave had a window set into it and a door, which was jammed. When they got to the cave, Chip helped Lama Zopa clear away the stones and both lamas entered the cave. Later, Chip told us the two lamas looked just so comfortable in there. He said the place looked like it had been deserted only yesterday, with everything still in its place and no sense of time having passed.”

Rinpoche and Zina outside the cave, Lawudo, 1969
Rinpoche and Zina outside the cave, Lawudo, 1969

The cave at Lawudo is about twelve feet by five. The front is a wooden wall set into a huge overhanging rock. There is a nice sized window but the door is tiny. A square, knee-high meditation box furnished with cushions sits on the right-hand side. It is designed to offer some support and prevent one from lying down. Meditators would often sit in such boxes for twenty-four hours a day. The cave also contains a table, a beautiful shrine with statues of Lama Tsongkhapa and Guru Rinpoche, as well as many old photographs of lamas from that region. Zopa Rinpoche posed outside the cave for a photograph with Thubten Yeshe, his teacher, but seated higher than Lama Yeshe in recognition of his status as an incarnate lama.

The lamas, Lawudo, 1969
The lamas, Lawudo, 1969

The villagers threw a huge party to celebrate the return of their lama. A local dignitary, Khari Rinpoche, predicted that both Zina and Jacqueline Fagan would directly perceive emptiness in this life. He also gave the group some texts and commentaries to take to America. Looking back, it seems incredible that someone living in such a remote place would even know about America.

Judy Weitzner: “Max and I waited for Chip in Namche Bazaar. When he returned from Lawudo, he brought a note from the lamas saying they were going to stay for a while and do some retreat. They also asked if Max and I could work on establishing a school for the Lawudo children. Eventually, we came to understand that the previous Lawudo Lama had promised to provide the Sherpas with a school for their children in his next incarnation, as he was too old when the villagers had requested him to help. Now Lama Zopa was back and intended to fulfill that promise. Really, this was the first time I had ever heard of promises being made in previous bodies. However, my skeptical mind was relaxing and allowing for possibilities I could never have accepted before. After seeing tea changed to Coke, all things were possible!

“We returned to Lukla to await our charter flight. This time it was another STOL plane that came to pick us up, but with an experienced pilot. I couldn’t believe how it just flew directly in, without having to spiral downward as the previous plane had done and easily stopped halfway down the runway! I heard the king’s plane we flew in on had subsequently come back to Lukla and crashed when trying to land. They’d used yaks to tow the plane away from the runway and toward the village of Lukla and had then converted it into a tea house! Luckily no one was hurt, but when I thought about our first flight, I could only think it must have been the lamas’ rapidly clicking malas that got us there alive.

“Max, Chip and I returned to our lives and our teaching in Kathmandu on April 15. We began to ponder how we might start a school in the high Himalayan mountains. Prinz and Zina returned thirteen days later, while Rinpoche and Jacqueline came down on May 5. Lama Yeshe stayed on in Thangme.”

An important statue

One day Max told Judy she had seen an exquisite but very expensive statue she just had to have. She was short of money at the time but bought it anyway. Wanting to know what it was, she invited the lamas to come over one Sunday and examine it. They arrived around mid-morning.

Judy Weitzner: “They said the statue looked pretty good, but to really know they had to do a special puja to open it up and see what it was filled with—the mantras and precious gems and other things. We didn’t even know what a puja was. I’d only just learned the Tibetans didn’t think it was cool to use offering bowls as wine cups. Tibetan antiques were all just decorator items to us.

“Lama Yeshe said they needed all this special equipment for the puja, but somehow they looked around the apartment and found everything they needed stashed in fireplaces or being used as ashtrays and such. The lamas were quite skillful and sweet about prompting us to take care of ritual and holy objects in a more reverent way. They went down to Max’s bedroom, which was on the floor below the living room and relatively quiet, to do the puja.

“While they did their thing, we began to have a party. Chip and I had the latest Beatles record, which we took with us everywhere there was a phonograph because we didn’t have one. So we played that record and danced around and had a great time. Some of us went up to the roof garden to smoke dope and take in the fabulous view. After a while, we settled into the low couches in the living room and began sharing our travel stories. We forgot all about the lamas downstairs.

The lamas with Chip, Max’s rooftop, Kathmandu, 1969
The lamas with Chip, Max’s rooftop, Kathmandu, 1969

“But as the afternoon progressed, I began to feel quite queasy and uncomfortable. Though it was a warm day I began to shiver and noticed goosebumps on my arms. Finally, I told the others I felt weird, that maybe I was coming down with something. Then Zina said, ‘I feel strange, too.’ Max, Chip, Jacqueline and whoever else was there, they said they all felt strange as well. Suddenly, we’re all saying, ‘What’s going on here?’ In the now quiet room I became aware of the sounds of the bells and the tap-tap- tap of the small, double-headed hand drums[]coming from the room below us. A palpable energy was emanating from down there. We all felt it. At that time we would probably have called such an experience psychedelic, but this was beyond anything I had ever experienced. A shimmering pervaded the entire room and went right through our bodies.

“We all went downstairs to find the lamas had just completed re-empowering the statue, after taking out all the stuff that was inside it and putting it back. The puja was over. The statue was sitting on the makeshift altar, with Lama Yeshe and Lama Zopa sitting facing it. They both looked very joyous.

“The lamas told us it was a very, very old statue containing relics from the Buddha before Shakyamuni Buddha and that it was priceless. Of course, Max was just thrilled. We sat in a semi-circle facing the statue and it became clear to us that all this shimmering energy was coming from the statue itself. The structure of my reality was eroding very quickly. I did not believe objects could have power and thought the only power came from our minds. But there we all were, basking in this shimmering light energy. I felt immense love for everyone in the room. This statue had been venerated for hundreds of years and had become a repository of spiritual energy we could all feel.

“We began talking about how we wanted to live our lives from this moment on. Zina began talking about finding a place where artists, musicians, poets and writers could come and work and learn meditation from the lamas. In a moment of deep honesty, she said she had created a lot of bad karma in her life and felt she needed to work hard to change things for the better. This place would be her contribution. It was an inspiring idea and we all shared our vision of what such a center could be like. Lama Zopa listened to everyone and then exclaimed with great enthusiasm, ‘And everything is going to be perfect!’ That was the day the idea for what would become Kopan was born.

“From then on, whenever we saw Zina and the lamas, we talked about the center. Zina was much given to hyperbole and exaggeration, so although I thought the idea was brilliant, I was waiting to see if any of what she said would match reality.”

A group was already starting to form. Thubten Yeshe sent a photo of himself and Zopa Rinpoche to Geshe Sopa in New Jersey. “Now I have eight students!” he wrote. Geshe Sopa kept that photo. It was a joke, of course. Thubten Yeshe had had dozens of Tibetan students before running away with the Injis.

One day, while shopping in Kathmandu, Thubten Yeshe spotted a familiar face in the crowd and grabbed his dear friend Geshe Lama Konchog from behind in a huge bear hug. Geshe Konchog had been at Sera, and after fleeing Tibet had been meditating in an isolated cave in the remote Tsum region of Nepal north of Kathmandu. They went out to Boudhanath together to take tea with Zopa Rinpoche. “They told me they were looking for a place of their own where they could start some kind of monastery,” Geshe Lama Konchog recounted. Soon after, he returned to the mountains.[]

Kopan

Losang Nyima arrived from Buxa and resumed his duties as attendant. By this time Thubten Yeshe had moved into an upstairs room at Samten Ling belonging to a Mongolian lama. His bed was placed near a little window looking out toward Mount Shivapuri and his attention was constantly drawn to a particular foothill called Kopan. “He seemed very attracted to that hill,” said Zopa Rinpoche. Thubten Yeshe and Zopa Rinpoche then moved out of Samten Ling and for a short time took up residence in a house painted green that was owned by another of Chini Lama’s sons.

Chip and Judy often went on picnic outings with the monks while searching for a place where they could build the colony Zina had proposed. She heard of Kopan through Pasang Kampuche, a popular Nepali who went around the country planting apple orchards and vineyards and setting up small factories to make jams. Pasang was a handy person to know because he had friendships with half the country, from the Royal Palace down to the lowliest beggar. He thought Zina charming and told her about the house, which she rented at Chip and Judy’s suggestion.

The old house, Kopan, 1969
The old house, Kopan, 1969

The main building was decorated with pilasters and architraves in pale stone. It had been empty for some time and was very dirty. “This is a good place,” pronounced Thubten Yeshe when he saw it. It possessed all the requirements of a classic Tibetan monastery site in that it was on a hill in a fairly remote location and close to a good natural spring.

Kitchen, store room, servants’ quarters above the old house, Kopan, 1969
Kitchen, store room, servants’ quarters above the old house, Kopan, 1969

Somehow, the early students at Kopan believed the gracious brick house was formerly owned by the King of Nepal’s astrologer and that the unusually steep small hill on the property was man-made and filled with ancient shards. The “astrologer’s hill” became an accepted piece of Kopan lore, a view that was held by pretty much everyone until 2016, when a Nepalese citizen, Mr. Prakash A. Raj, then aged seventy-two, met with Frances Howland, a student of the lamas residing in Kathmandu. He told her the following story.

The “astrologer’s hill,” Kopan, 1969
The “astrologer’s hill,” Kopan, 1969

“My grandfather, Hem Raj Sharma (1878–1953) bought the hill known as Kappan in 1918. Locally, it was called Gadhi, meaning hill-top or fort. The land measured forty ropani,[] some of which was used by tenant farmers. Hem Raj’s first wife was sick with tuberculosis and doctors had advised her to live in the countryside. So Hem Raj built a two-story house for her but she died in 1919 at the age of forty-one. The family used the house at weekends and for picnics.

“In 1934 an earthquake badly damaged the upper story, which was removed and the house became a single-story bungalow on two levels. In the late 1940s it became a summer home for the family and my grandfather spent a few months there every year. He owned a car and had a rough road constructed up the hill. Hem Raj Sharma was a very learned man and a Sanskrit scholar and his collection of manuscripts, many of them Buddhist, was considered to be without parallel in Asia. It is now housed in the Nepal National Library. In 1912 he published the first book on Nepalese grammar and in 1939 he was given the title of “the Crown Jewel of Scholars.” Many famous scholars visited him at Kopan.

“My grandfather held the position of Royal Preceptor, the priest who crowns the kings of Nepal, an honor awarded to our family in 1846. He was a priest who looked up auspicious dates for certain events and so while he knew astrology, he was not an astrologer as many later presumed him to be. During the rule of the Rana Prime Minister Chandra Shamsher Rana (1901–28), he held a lot of power.

“His first two marriages were without issue. A holy man told him that if he planted trees and married again, he would have children. After erecting a barbed-wire fence to protect them from goats, he planted many fruit trees at Kopan and married his third wife, Khagga Kumari, in 1922 and they had three children. Some of the mango trees Hem Raj planted are still standing today. He died in 1953, leaving the property to his widow.

“In 1967, when the family was no longer using the house, the widow rented it to a woman who worked for the US Embassy in Kathmandu for a year or so. Zina Rachevsky then took up a lease with the widow and the property was eventually sold for 80,000 rupees, around US$10,000 dollars at the time.

“My grandfather had wanted to donate the hill to the Nepalese government and offered to construct the first university in the country, but the offer was rejected by the last Rana Prime Minister, Mohan Shamsher. The Rana regime ended in 1951.”

The lamas departed for Dharamsala to attend teachings by His Holiness the Dalai Lama, and while Zina was preparing to move to Kopan, Nikolaus Dutschke arrived from Berlin. “Zina asked me to help her negotiate the terms of tenancy with the owner, the widow of the Royal Preceptor,” he said. “Eventually a contract was drawn up and signed. We learned that the bodhi tree below the house had been venerated by Hindus for hundreds of years. No one knew exactly how long. The roof on one side was gabled but the other side was flat because the room that had been there had collapsed in an earthquake.”

Nikolaus helped Zina clean and paint the place and move in. She took the best room for herself, drenched it in lush snow-white carpet and silk cushions, arranged her esoteric library on shelves and kept a team of Nepalese workers busy with errands. Rhea also moved in, together with two nannies to care for her.

Zina’s focus was to create a place where artists and poets could live cheaply and make beautiful things. The lamas were an extra. Meanwhile, Thubten Yeshe had plenty to do and scurried busily around Kathmandu. He looked up whoever was in town and spent time with his old classmate, Jampa Trinley, who had disrobed, married and was rapidly becoming a very successful businessman. Many Tibetans in Kathmandu were excellent business people. Thubten Yeshe paid close attention, watching and learning. He had been handling money for less than ten years but knew it would take a good deal of it to develop Kopan. Zina definitely didn’t have enough.

Let Us Take Higher
Let Us Take Higher

Whenever he was in town, Thubten Yeshe often made his way through the winding lanes to Freak Street and other areas where long-haired hippies hung out. The Eden Hash Shop on the corner of Freak Street did a roaring trade in those days and its Stories of the Ramayana calendars became collectors’ items all around the world. The hot spot was a café called The Blue Tibetan, which is where Ram Dass met Bhagavan Das for the first time. Thubten Yeshe sometimes went there for tea and to practice his hippie English.

Zopa Rinpoche, now twenty-three years old, never hung out in Kathmandu. He spent all his days and most of his nights in prayer and meditation, emerging to translate when Thubten Yeshe gave teachings to Zina and Max. Thubten Yeshe was now thirty-four, Zina thirty-nine and Max thirty-six.

The Tibetans had a great news grapevine and Thubten Yeshe maintained regular contact with his fellow monks at teachings that took place in Bodhgaya, Dharamsala, Delhi and the newly rebuilt Sera Monastery in Bylakuppe. Gatherings of classmates were good opportunities to exchange news, including precious details of friends and relatives back in Tibet. Ten years had passed since they had fled their homeland and over a million Tibetans had died. Some people were able to travel to and from Tibet, which is how Thubten Yeshe’s friend Jampa Khedup came to hear he was still alive. Jampa Khedup had been captured by the Chinese in Tölung and imprisoned. He had often wondered about Thubten Yeshe. After a bad dream he became convinced he was dead, but a monk returning from Nepal brought him a photo of his old friend.

Thubten Yeshe ran into Gelek Rimpoche at teachings being given by Kyabje Trijang Rinpoche in Delhi. “I saw him sitting right at the back, in the last row,” said Gelek Rimpoche. “We sat in a corner together and talked for a long time. It was our first meeting since we had last seen each other at Buxa. He told me about meeting this Russian princess. He said he read one of Lama Tsongkhapa’s commentaries to his Western students in Tibetan. He said he didn’t mind whether they understood it or not!”

Moving to Kopan

Around July the lamas moved into Kopan, where Zina gave them a small dark room with two small beds at the side of the house. There was just enough room for Losang Nyima to sleep on the floor. Once again, their food was awful. The monks accepted it all.

The door to the lamas’ room (right)
The door to the lamas’ room (right)

Clive Giboire visited them there. Later, he recalled, “I must confess I was shocked to find the lamas stuck away in such a tiny room at the back of the house when Zina had this rather grand boudoir kitted out in white carpet and a leopard-skin bedspread.

“There were times you felt like cursing Zina. You would lend her some book you treasured and it came back underlined in red all over the place, pages missing and coffee spilt all over it. But that was Zina. You couldn’t really get angry with her as that would have been useless. By and large she was a true friend. You didn’t lose her. She was friends with everybody and yet nobody in particular. She got along well with Boris Lisanevich. He had danced with the Ballet Russe de Monte Carlo before arriving in Kathmandu and opening the luxurious Hotel Yak and Yeti. They were both café society people and understood each other’s worlds.

“Initially, Kopan was a bit like the Villa Altomont revisited—a beautiful environment, people coming and going and ‘her lamas’ tucked away there. When I first met Zina, Conrad Rooks was still very much a presence. Without his small monthly allowance she would have been on skid row. She was always rushing to the Rastra Bank or the Nepal Bank to see if he’d sent her a bit.”

Every so often Zina went to Calcutta to sell something—jewelry, silver and such. She was an experienced hustler. On one of these trips she ran into her old translator, Jampa Gyaltsen Mutugtsang. “I had a restaurant in Sarnath then,” he said. “She was alone, without her daughter. I was very surprised to see she was a nun. She told me she wanted my help to find Hindi, Nepalese and Tibetan translators for a big project she was starting up in Nepal.”

After the trek Max had begun to study the lamas’ teachings. She had agreed to help finance a gompa for Lawudo and continued to support the lamas, which included paying for English lessons. She was utterly devoted to Lama Yeshe, but there was constant tension between her and Zina. Time and strikingly different circumstances had not taken the edge off their old competitiveness. They were both used to being the center of attention.

Lama sees a doctor

Around this time Lama Yeshe told Judy Weitzner he suffered from heart trouble. What? This vigorous young man who had leapt up the path to Lawudo? Judy had noticed his shortness of breath in the mountains but blamed it on the altitude. Max had even fainted up there. More worrying, though, were his constant nosebleeds and bouts of vomiting.

Zina took him to Shanta Bhawan Hospital, the Christian missionary hospital in the Lalitpur district just south of Kathmandu, where tests revealed a serious heart condition. The doctors told her there was not much they could do about it. He also seemed to be unusually full of water, spitting a lot and bursting out with huge wet sneezes. He didn’t talk much about his heart but occasionally pointed to the deep scar on his cheek from the abscess he had had at Sera. He mentioned again how kind the Chinese nurse had been in the clinic he had attended. No one ever heard Thubten Yeshe say a bad word about any Chinese individual.

Life for the little group went on, Zopa Rinpoche bent over his texts day and night, Lama Yeshe scuttling around Kathmandu making friends.

Judy Weitzner: “One time Max and I went to the American Embassy Commissary and bought some marshmallows. We drove out into the countryside with the lamas and handed them around to some village children. They had never seen anything like them in their lives and just stared in amazement. We had to demonstrate that they really could be eaten!

“We enjoyed lots of picnics with the lamas. They were clearly there for us Westerners, even though there were very few of us around with good visas and enough time to spend with them. But we were able to see Lama Yeshe and Lama Zopa whenever we wanted to. I related to them more as wonderful friends than as gurus. Lama Yeshe really spoke very little English. He called us all ‘dear’ and exuded this wonderful light. He’d say, ‘Don’t worry,’ and ‘Be happy’ and was always eager to learn more words. Looking back, I think I got as much out of him back then as when he spoke English fluently.”

Olivia de Haulleville and Michael Cassapidis

In September, Zina’s old friend, Olivia de Haulleville, turned up at Kopan with her Dutch boyfriend, Matti de Wys. Olivia’s aunt was married to the English novelist and essayist Aldous Huxley, who had arranged for her to attend his friend Krishnamurti’s Happy Valley School in Ojai, California. So Olivia had been around gurus before. She watched the lamas closely. Zopa Rinpoche sat on the floor as he translated for his teacher. “He’s just like any Tibetan,” thought Olivia. “But then this powerful feeling went all the way through me and I thought, ‘This is who I have really come to see, not Zina.’”

Olivia, Michael and Rhea, Kopan, 1970
Olivia, Michael and Rhea, Kopan, 1970
Rhea, Michael and Matti, Kopan, 1970
Rhea, Michael and Matti, Kopan, 1970

Olivia and Matti rented a house near Kopan together with her young son, Michael Cassapidis. By happy coincidence he was the same age as Rhea. Olivia suffered periods of emotional imbalance for which she had undergone considerable analysis in Europe. However, no medical cause could be found. Later, the Dalai Lama’s physician, Dr. Yeshi Dhonden, was able to diagnose her illness and she recovered by using Tibetan medicine.

While she sought treatment, Olivia was concerned for Michael’s welfare and had read that Sherpas sometimes raised other people’s children. But how was she to bring this up in conversation? When she took Michael to Kopan, Zopa Rinpoche regarded the boy thoughtfully and kindly. Then, as if he could read her mind, he said, “I understand about your son,” and offered to raise the child. Olivia planned to stay around for some months, so there was time to think about this.

Matti de Wys developed his own relationship with the lamas. “Zina, Max and Olivia were all really intense American women,” Matti recalled. “I was much more relaxed about the whole thing and got into smoking some dope with a bunch of guys. I wasn’t so interested in Tibetan Buddhism but I could see these lamas were the one stable factor in that whole crazy show up on the hill. For some reason I never knew, Thubten Yeshe always called me ‘my father,’ and later, when he wrote to me, he addressed me as ‘my great-grandfather.’ Zina was the main show up there, that’s for sure. I just went up for a laugh and a joke with the monks and I used to take them on picnics in my Land Rover.”

Zina put a bit of carpet down in the lamas’ dark little room. She also bought them Kleenex tissues, hoping to stop them spitting everywhere. Lama Yeshe loved the tissues but around town some Tibetans started calling him “the toilet-paper lama.” It was a real put-down.

Zina also bought him some sleeveless yellow polyester roll-neck shirts to wear instead of the traditional Tibetan monks’ shirt, the dongka. “My New York shirts,” he called them. It was a generous and courageous act to wear them in public. No other Tibetan monk in the whole subcontinent wore anything other than strictly traditional robes, though sunglasses and Seiko watches were beginning to make their appearance among the upper ranks.

Lama in a “New York shirt”
Lama in a “New York shirt”

Jan Willis and the Solicks

In late October three more Americans walked into Kopan. They were Jan Willis, an African-American political activist majoring in philosophy, her best friend, Randa, and Randa’s husband, Robbie Solick. Jan had won a scholarship to study in Varanasi for a year, the only Westerner and the only woman in a class with seven Thai monks. Jan had been to India before. She had attended a Buddhist education program at the university in Varanasi and gone on to Nepal, where she had made friends with a Tibetan monk, Losang Chonjor, who lived at Samten Ling Monastery in Boudhanath. Subsequently, they kept in touch through letters.

Robbie Solick and Jan Willis, Kopan, 1972
Robbie Solick and Jan Willis, Kopan, 1972
Randa Solick and Jan Willis, Kopan, 1972
Randa Solick and Jan Willis, Kopan, 1972

Jan had grown up in a deeply segregated South in the United States. The Ku Klux Klan had burned a cross in front of her family’s home in Alabama when she was accepted to college. A brilliant young student at Cornell, she had come in contact with the Black Panthers, a militant American political movement demanding equality for black citizens. She had considered joining them, but a factional division within the Panthers led to her deciding to go to Europe and India with the Solicks instead.

In Varanasi, Arthur Mandelbaum, who had been studying with Nyingma lamas in India for seven years, told Jan and the Solicks of a Lama Yeshe and said he lived on a hill called Kopan beyond Boudhanath, on the way to Urgyen Tulku’s gompa. Upon hearing Lama Yeshe’s name, “all the hairs on my skin gently stood erect,” Jan later recalled. Their travel plans had included a trip to Nepal. Arriving at Samten Ling, Jan had asked for her friend Losang Chonjor, only to learn he was away but she was expected and could stay in his room. Samten Ling was now home to forty Tibetan and ten Mongolian monks— and Jan Willis. She asked the monks about the high lamas in the area. The kitchen monk took her outside, pointed up the hill and said, “Thubten Yeshe.” It was the second time she had heard that name and once again she felt a tingling sensation at hearing it. That same day Jan went into Kathmandu and picked up the Solicks from their hotel. They took a taxi back out to Boudha stupa and then walked up to Kopan together.

Jan Willis: “It was a beautiful day to walk through the rice paddies. The only person at home when we arrived was Zina. She said there were only four people living there at the time: herself, the lamas and a young cook. She invited us into her big room with thick, cushy, wall-to- wall white carpet, and we chatted about America. When we asked to see Thubten Yeshe she told us he was too busy to see us. Then she served us a wonderful vegetarian meal at a round brick outdoor table.

Jan with Rinpoche, Kopan, 1969
Jan with Rinpoche, Kopan, 1969

“We said goodbye while it was still light and started to depart. Just as we were turning the corner of the building, we saw a door at the far end open a little and a hand beckon us inside, followed by a face peering out to check that Zina hadn’t seen. The three of us tiptoed into this tiny little room containing only two beds and a table. And so we met Thubten Yeshe and the thinnest monk I have ever seen. Thubten Yeshe managed the conversation pretty well with help from Zopa Rinpoche, who was already advanced in philosophical and technical psychological terms and eager to increase his vocabulary.

“We said we were looking for a teacher. Thubten Yeshe replied, ‘I am so happy you made it here safely and have already had some training in meditation.’ That really blew us away. We had not told him we had just had our first meditation classes in Bodhgaya or that just before leaving Europe we had had a very lucky escape from a serious road accident. We all felt that somehow he seemed to know everything already. He told us we could come back and study with him and Zina would see to our accommodation.”

Jan decided to stay on at Samten Ling and study Tibetan language. The next day Robbie and Randa moved into one-half of a nearby house on the back side of Kopan hill that belonged to a local Nepalese farmer, Laxman Bahadur, cousin of Ram Bahadur, who later also rented his house out to Injis visiting Kopan. The Solicks stayed at Laxman’s house for almost a year.

Laxman’s house, 1972
Laxman’s house, 1972

Claudio Cipullo and Piero Cerri

The Americans had already started moving in and the Italians were about to arrive. Zina’s days of owning “her lamas” were over. One of her guests when she had lived at the Double Dorje house in Boudha had been a young Italian, Mario Maglietti, who had introduced his friend Piero Cerri to Thubten Yeshe and Zina. Piero had sent excited letters back home to his friends Massimo, Carol and Claudio. Inspired, these three left Italy together, but Claudio Cipullo was the first to reach Kopan.

Piero Cerri
Piero Cerri

Claudio Cipullo: “I didn’t know who Lama Yeshe was. I was dressed as a sadhu in a loincloth, Varanasi shawl and trident, my hair in knots and carrying a little bag with my hash and pipe in it. In Zina’s big room at Kopan, this man dressed in a yellow slicker raincoat with ribbons all over it came over to me. I thought he might be Japanese. He asked me all these questions about what I did back in Italy, so I told him I studied psychology. ‘Oh,’ he said, ‘so you are going to get a degree in psychology. That is very good for a future position.’ I told him I wasn’t studying for ‘a position.’ The moment I said it I knew I was just playing at being a sadhu. I also saw that what I had just told him was so conceited; it was outrageous! He just laughed.” Claudio stayed on. When Lama Yeshe laughed, the air sparkled.

Piero Cerri returned to Nepal only to end up in Shanta Bhawan Hospital with hepatitis, which was very easy to catch. To pass the time, Mario Maglietti gave him a copy of the biography of Milarepa, the famous poet-saint of Tibet who had lived in a cave and eaten nettles.

“When I recovered, Mario took me to Kopan and introduced me to Lama Yeshe again,” Piero recalled. “I thought he looked rather severe, no fun at all. He led me by the hand into this very dark, tiny room, picked up a set of monk’s robes and threw them on the floor in front of me. Then he took a Buddha statue and threw that down too, saying in English, ‘This has nothing to do with Dharma. This has nothing to do with Buddhism. The sky cannot become earth and the earth cannot become sky.’ It blew my mind. He had just started giving lectures to Westerners on Sundays and so I began attending them.”

Kathmandu was heaven on earth to the emerging, politically aware, “alternative” generation. “It was the time of the LSD explosion, the buddha-grass explosion,” as Zopa Rinpoche put it later, referring to a type of marijuana. One day a well-known “acid guru” turned up at Kopan for lunch and challenged the lamas, saying, “I don’t think you people are as highly realized as people think you are!” Lama Yeshe folded his hands, bowed and replied, “Yes, dear, you are right!” Humbled, the acid guru offered them some of his best supply. The lamas declined politely.

“Higher mental states” was a favorite topic in Lama Yeshe’s Sunday talks. Students often insisted they had experienced just such states while on drugs. “Well, I don’t know about that,” Lama Yeshe answered. “I never took drugs. But with my way you’ll never come down.”

Titles are something of a feature in the Tibetan Buddhist tradition. Zina and her friends had always called Thubten Yeshe and Zopa Rinpoche “Lama Yeshe” and “Lama Zopa.” The Westerners who gathered around them did the same, though they also called Lama Zopa by his title, “Rinpoche.” To Tibetans they were still Thubten Yeshe and Zopa Rinpoche. As neither monk had received a geshe degree, one title by which they were not addressed was Geshe-la, though a few people did refer to Lama Yeshe this way.

Zina ran the house. She was “mother.” Most days at Kopan passed with just Zina, Jan, Robbie, Randa and Piero sitting around talking with the lamas when they were not doing their practices. Lama Yeshe began giving classes twice a week, on Sundays and Wednesdays. A daily schedule was posted outside his room indicating when he was free for interviews, which were translated by Rinpoche. Piero Cerri put his name down for every day of the week.

Staying at Kopan wasn’t all sweetness and light. Piero bravely produced daily lists of his meditation problems, while Jan and Randa fought—often. Lama Yeshe calmed everyone down over and over again.

Everyone who met the two lamas noticed the differences between them. Rinpoche was the impossibly thin ascetic who took forever to bless his food and then ate next to nothing. He happily allowed mosquitoes to bite him as he sat in endless meditation. On the other hand, Lama Yeshe was exuberant. He ate heartily, enjoyed everything and engaged everyone in conversations ranging from gardening to physics. He never appeared to study the texts he knew so well, though people noticed the lamas’ lights were generally left on all night long.

Both monks had outrageously infectious laughs—waterfalls of unrestrained joy breaking out all over the silent hill late at night as the Injis sat meditating with their sore knees and aching legs, full of their daily miseries. Everyone figured that if the lamas could laugh like that—well, there had to be something to this Buddhadharma.

The lamas, Solu Khumbu, 1969
The lamas, Solu Khumbu, 1969

Lama Yeshe told his students he had been entrusted with Zopa Rinpoche’s education and care. Sometimes he interrupted his ascetic student’s meditations, pointing at him and saying, “You’re going to have to teach!” Zopa Rinpoche would beg off, saying nervously, “Please, Lama, no!” This made Lama Yeshe rock with laughter.

Thubten Yeshe had all the time in the world for the crazy Injis and was full of boundless energy for anyone who needed him. When he had time, he still ran around Kathmandu and hung out with Jampa Trinley’s young family.

The psychedelic-loving Injis were fascinated by the lamas and loved to relate details of their wild drug experiences, hoping to coax the monks into talking about their own “magic.” But on this subject, the lamas remained disappointingly silent. Everyone thought they could read others’ minds like a book but just wouldn’t say so. Once Randa said, “Come on, Lama, astral traveling and all this stuff can’t really be true!” Lama Yeshe gave his usual teasing reply: “Everything is possible, dear.”

Lama, Solu Khumbu, 1969
Lama, Solu Khumbu, 1969

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