LAMA THUBTEN YESHE
Lama Yeshe (1935-1984), a renowned Tibetan Buddhist master, established the Foundation for the Preservation of the Mahayana Tradition (FPMT), an international organization of more than 100 Buddhist centers and other activities.
He is the author of several books published by Wisdom:
The Bliss of Inner Fire
Life, Death, and After Death
Light of Dharma
The Tantric Path of Purification
Transference of Consciousness at the Time of Death
Wisdom Energy (with Lama Zopa)
Wisdom Energy 2 (with Lama Zopa).
Many of Lama's talks and teachings are available from the Lama Yeshe Wisdom Archive and are available online at the FPMT website.
Lama Zopa's Foreword to Lama Yeshe's The Bliss of Inner Fire
The unimaginable secret qualities and actions of a Buddha are the objects of knowledge only of the omniscient minds of other Buddhas. Therefore, there is no way that ordinary beings could understand Lama Yeshe's secret qualities; they could only see his qualities in accordance with the level of their mind. However, since individual experience is one of the most effective ways of realizing that the essence of the guru is Buddha, I would like to remember again the wonderful qualities of Lama Yeshe that I did have the karma to see.
The qualities of Lama's holy body
Even people who had never met Lama Yeshe got a very warm feeling simply from seeing a photograph of him; they immediately felt he was someone who was very kind and concerned about others. I once sent an English pen friend, Audrey Cohen, a photo of Lama in a group of monks. Although I didn't explain which of the monks was Lama, Audrey wrote to say that she got a good feeling from seeing a particular monk in the back row; this monk was Lama.
Many people reacted in a similar way to seeing Lama's holy body. Even though many Tibetans did not know who Lama Yeshe was and had not heard of his background as a great scholar, simply seeing Lama made them very happy, and they often felt devotion arise towards him. Once when we were visiting Bodhgaya some Tibetans from Sikkim met Lama in the street and immediately sensed a holy purity in him; they felt that he must be a great bodhisattva. The meeting had such a strong impact on them that they asked some nearby monks who Lama was, but no one really knew. That same evening one of the Tibetans came to see me and explained how impressed they had all been by meeting Lama in the street. He had incredible faith that Lama was a great holy being.
Simply seeing Lama's holy body brought peace and joy to the mind, and a wish to see more of him. Even without being introduced to him, people naturally respected Lama. Even people who had not met the Dharma felt that Lama was different from ordinary people. When they met Lama, they sensed very particular qualities of purity and holiness; they felt not only that he was learned but also that he had a deep spiritual quality.
In the general view, Lama's physical aspect changed with the development of his mind. For several years before he passed away, he looked very light and very radiant. This was an expression of his tantric realizations. Those who were aware of the signs could recognize the outer changes that were evidence of his inner development, especially of completion stage tantric realizations.
Even when Lama was showing the aspect of serious illness, he would suddenly look so bright and magnificent that you could almost think that he had no sickness at all. Out of his great compassion, Lama manifested various aspects as needed to subdue different sentient beings.
The qualities of Lama's holy speech
Lama's holy speech was like nectar, and its power is the personal experience of those who received teachings from him. Every single word came out of his bodhicitta; every single word was for others.
When other Tibetan lamas give a public talk in the West, where there are usually people who are completely new to the Dharma, they often speak on subjects with which they are familiar rather than on subjects the people in the audience need to hear. Lama, however, would not usually talk on any one fixed subject but would address the various problems, spiritual and mundane, of the people in his audience.
Like offering a smorgasbord, Lama would speak on one subject, then switch to another, then another, without there necessarily being a connection between the subjects. Even though they might not like all the foods served, everybody would find something they liked among the various dishes. No matter what their social class or level of education, everybody received an answer to their problems that suited the nature of their mind. Even though they might have arrived with confused minds, they returned home extremely happy and satisfied. After an hour's talk from Lama, no one could walk away saying that they hadn't found the solution to their problems. This amazing skill is proof that Lama's holy action of teaching was Buddha's action.
It might appear to some people that Lama was simply telling many jokes to make people laugh, but those with a Dharma background appreciated how practical Lama's talks were. Someone who had been following Buddhadharma for twenty years and had heard many secret, profound teachings still found Lama's talks practical and beneficial. Lama's advice was not pie in the sky; it could be related to everyday life.
Some people came to Lama's lectures out of curiosity, just to see what a Tibetan lama looked like; they had no particular wish to receive teachings from a Tibetan lama or to study Buddha's teachings. Others came sincerely seeking peace of mind and some solution to the problems in their lives. From Lama's external appearance, they probably didn't expect him to have any methods to solve their problems. However, the more they listened to Lama, the more peaceful their minds became and the more they appreciated Lama's special qualities. Even someone with a mountain of pride in their own knowledge, which no one else could crush, would have their pride subdued by hearing Lama talk. They would naturally become more humble as a result of the teaching. At the same time, Lama himself had incredible humility, the quality of a learned person.
After Lama had talked for an hour, the people in the audience would realize that this Tibetan lama was remarkable, with extensive knowledge and many answers that they didn't have. During that hour they would be greatly inspired to learn more about Tibetan Buddhism; refuge in Dharma was actualized in their minds. Lama was unbelievably kind, because he planted the first inspiration to listen to the holy Dharma and then apply it in practice. From this inspiration comes enlightenment. When Lama gave personal advice to his students, he would give each person exactly the advice they needed and make them extremely happy. Lama had an incredible ability to understand the various solutions that suited the level of mind of each person. When he advised people, Lama didn't rely upon dice and scriptures; his predictions came from his own wisdom.
When Lama taught introductory courses on lam-rim, the graduated path to enlightenment, the people listening to Lama talk felt that they could almost transform their minds into the realizations of the path to enlightenment. For example, when Lama gave teachings on bodhicitta even for a few minutes, because of his own realization of bodhicitta, the people in the audience felt as if they had achieved the realization of bodhicitta. It gave no freedom for the selfish attitude to arise.
It was similar when Lama taught on tantra. A sign of having attainments of the tantric path is that a practitioner's teachings on tantra are very clear and very effective. This was obvious when Lama taught on completion stage practices such as the Six Yogas of Naropa. Just by hearing Lama's teachings on the Six Yogas and doing one or two meditations, many students had experiences. The clarity and the effect of the teachings proved that they came out of Lama's experience of the tantric path.
This is the essence of the small understanding that an ordinary being could have of the qualities of Lama's holy speech. After listening to Lama speak, people felt no doubt that he was a holy being, a great bodhisattva. Just as the rising sun dispels the darkness from the earth, through his teachings Lama dispelled the darkness of ignorance from the minds of so many people.
The qualities of Lama's holy mind
Lama had a very open heart and mind; he was open to all traditions of Tibetan Buddhism and to all religions. He had a very broad view and was also very farsighted. There was nothing tight, closed, or limited about Lama's approach to life. He was not someone walking a narrow road.
Even though Lama didn't have a reputation for being learned, he was respected by lamas from all orders of Tibetan Buddhism. Lama had an understanding of sutra and tantra not only according to the Gelug presentation but also according to the Nyingma, Sakya, and Kagyu views. He was knowledgeable not only about Tibetan culture but also about Western culture and philosophy, which he had studied seriously. Lama was not confused by words and external appearances that seemed to imply differences between sutra and tantra and the various orders. He would check the meaning behind the words to reach his own understanding, then concentrate on putting that meaning into practice. This was a particular quality of Lama Yeshe.
The actual essence of Lama's holy mind was great compassion, just as it is with His Holiness the Dalai Lama. Lama was filled with great compassion, cherishing other sentient beings. You can understand Lama's great loving kindness from the way he took care of his students like babies. He was more than a mother, more than a father. Not only did he give teachings to his students, but he constantly encouraged them in their Dharma practice and helped them to solve their problems. Like a father, he would listen to all their problems and then give them personal advice as well as teachings. He wrote many letters each day, late at night, to give advice to students. Even though he had so many other things to do, Lama gave so much of his time and his life to solving the problems of his students and their families.
Lama would mix with people, entertaining them in whatever way made them happy and dissolving the tightness in their hearts. To make people happy he would go to the beach or to a restau-rant. Because he did these things only to benefit others, they became causes for developing his own mind and realizations.
Lama told me that the whole point is to transform every action you do--eating, drinking, sleeping--into Dharma, so that your life becomes meaningful. Lama used to say that some beings even use their breathing to benefit others. Even though Lama didn't say so, I felt that he was actually describing his own qualities and experience, particularly his realization of bodhicitta.
Despite many doctors warning him of the seriousness of his heart condition, Lama was always extremely busy traveling, giving teachings, writing, reading texts, guiding the FPMT (Foundation for the Preservation of the Mahayana Tradition) Centers, and giving advice to students. When Lama was at Kopan Monastery, for example, even though he was concerned with giving guidance to all the Centers and to individual students, he would teach the Kopan monks; take care of their food and clothing; supervise what was happening in the kitchen and library; water the garden--and he still found time to wash the dogs with mange. He would accomplish so much in one day out of the unbearable compassion he felt for suffering sentient beings.
From the first time that Lama had x-rays in Kathmandu in the early 1970s, the doctors kept on telling him that he would not live long. The first doctor told Lama that his heart condition was so serious that he had only one year to live. Many other doctors later gave a similar diagnosis. However, even with this life-threatening physical condition, Lama lived for many years, during which he traveled extensively and engaged in many activities. Lama dedicated his life to others.
An ordinary person with such dangerously poor health could not have lived so long nor achieved so much. Because of the unbearable compassion he felt for his students, Lama tried to live as long as possible to guide his students and help them make their lives meaningful. While he was alive, he dedicated all his time and energy to others, day and night. Lama was able to live even when physically the situation seemed to be hopeless because of the power of his great bodhicitta, his strong will, and his tantric realizations.
Another of Lama's particular powers was the great scope of his vision; he had the ability to make huge plans to benefit the teachings and sentient beings. Many people could not comprehend the scale of these works and felt that the projects were too difficult to accomplish. When Lama's plans were actualized, however, they proved to be highly beneficial for those who had carried them out as well as for many other sentient beings. Such great works showed the qualities of Lama's holy mind: his great compassion, great will, capability, and understanding. If Lama had not had such a brave attitude to work for others, besides the planning and accomplishing of such projects, even the thought of them would not have arisen.
For me, one of Lama's most amazing qualities was that while he was so busy guiding all the FPMT Centers and individual students, his own practice and realizations did not degenerate. Month by month, year by year, Lama's practice actually developed. This incredible capability is one of the main causes of my faith in Lama. When Lama visited each Center, he would see all the students and advise them, as well as take care of the Center itself. While working fully for others, doing hundreds of things, Lama would still be able to do his own practice, and there was always development of his realizations.
In some ways, it looks as if Lama was born with realizations of the three principal paths: renunciation, bodhicitta, and right view. Lama showed early signs of renunciation of this life. When he was a young child and had been in Sera Monastery for some time, he went back home to visit his family. Seeing the sufferings and hardships of family life and the big difference between being a monk and living a worldly lay life made him appreciate the incredible benefits of living in ordination. By visiting his family home, Lama developed renunciation and had not the slightest interest in worldly life.
Even though it looks as if Lama was born with bodhicitta, according to what he actually said, it seems he generated bodhicitta while receiving a Lama Chopa commentary from His Holiness Trijang Rinpoche, the late Junior Tutor to His Holiness the Dalai Lama. Lama, along with the great meditator Gen Jampa Wangdu, Geshe Lama Konchog, and thousands of other monks, including many learned geshes and high lamas, received the Lama Chopa commentary. After hearing this commentary, many geshes left the monastery and went to the nearby mountains to meditate and lead ascetic lives. When it came to the commentary on the lam-rim prayer in Lama Chopa, Lama said that he didn't find anything new in the section on impermanence and death. Nor did he find anything special in the part on renunciation. But when it came to the section on bodhicitta, equalizing and exchanging self for others, Lama said that he felt very strongly that this was the real teaching of Buddha, the very heart of Dharma. Lama said that while he and Gen Jampa Wangdu were receiving these teachings, they did not waste their time; every day they meditated immediately after the sessions. In the general view, it looks as if Lama generated the realization of bodhicitta at that time.
When Gen Jampa Wangdu came to see Lama at Tushita Retreat Centre in Dharamsala, they often teased each other. Lama always put down ascetic monks, saying that even though they might physically be living on high mountains, their minds were clinging to worldly things. Lama would then say, "Oh, the whole world comes to me. I have everything and I enjoy it."
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 a long time ago. Lama would then reply, "Oh, I realized emptiness ages ago, when I was debating on Madhyamaka in the courtyard at Sera Je." Lama said that he realized emptiness when he was a young monk in Tibet.
In terms of tantric practice, Lama's main deity was Heruka Chakrasamvara. I didn't know very much about scriptures when Lama and I lived together at Buxa Duar,1 but even at that time, when Lama was studying Buddha's rules of discipline, he was already reading many tantric texts. From the time that we came to Nepal from India in 1968, Lama read only tantric teachings, not so much on the generation stage of Heruka but on the completion stage. From time to time I would look at the texts he was reading. In 1975, on the second teaching tour to America, we stayed for a month in Madison, near Geshe Sopa Rinpoche's house, to have a holiday. During that time, Lama was reading various tantric texts dealing with the clear light. This indicates that Lama was experienced in these practices and had these attainments.
One of Lama's special qualities was that he never showed others that he was a great practitioner. Even to those close to him Lama did not show the external appearance of meditating. You never saw Lama sitting cross-legged in meditation posture for very long. He was either very active or relaxing. Lama, however, practiced very skillfully. Like Shantideva, he was a great hidden yogi. When Shantideva was at Nalanda, the other monks in the monastery thought that he spent his whole time doing only three things: eating, sleeping, and defecating. They did not think that Shantideva did any Dharma practice.
Like Shantideva, Lama kept his actual meditation hidden. Whether he was in the West or in the East, after lunch each day Lama would usually go to rest for one or two hours, but actually all those "naps" were meditation sessions. In the beginning I didn't realize what Lama was doing and thought his rest was just like ordinary sleep; then gradually I realized that it was actually meditation. The reality is that when Lama appeared to be sleeping at night and after lunch, he was practicing Dharma in a very skillful way.
I remember one day at Kopan when Yangtse Rinpoche's family came to visit us after lunch. Yangtse Rinpoche is the incarnation of a famous lama, Geshe Ngawang Gendun, who was one of Lama's teachers. Yangtse Rinpoche's father, Jampa Thinley, used to be in Lama's class in Tibet and was a close friend. Because of the visit, Lama didn't have time to rest after lunch, and after the family had left Lama said that he felt a great loss that he hadn't found time to rest. Lama appeared very sorry, like an ordinary person who had lost a big sack of gold. To someone who wasn't aware of Lama's hidden practice it looked as if Lama was clinging to the comfort of sleep. It didn't make sense to feel so sorry about having missed an hour of rest, especially for a Dharma practitioner.
Lama's "rest" had nothing to do with a physical problem or with karma and disturbing thoughts. It was to ensure the continuation of his realizations of the path. Once a practitioner has realizations, since the continuity of the experience needs to be maintained by meditating every day, even a few minutes of meditation becomes extremely precious.
The second last time that Lama was at Kopan, he went one day to rest in the small hut at the top of the hill. 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 I dreamt that a powerful protector made offerings to me." This just slipped out, but it shows that when Lama rested after lunch he normally didn't go to sleep.
Also, Lama often said that it was important to eat foods such as curd, honey, garlic, and meat. I understood the reason for this only when I saw in Pabongka Dechen Nyingpo's Collection of Notes that meditators with realizations of the completion stage use these foods to develop the elements and drops in their body, so that they have stronger experiences of the clear light and strengthen the conditions for the illusory body. Lama ate these foods not to benefit his body but to develop his realizations. He was concerned not about external physical health but about inner mental health.
When Lama requested His Holiness Trijang Rinpoche for teachings on the Six Yogas of Naropa, Rinpoche advised him to request the teachings from His Holiness the Dalai Lama, who had fresh experience of the practice. Lama received the teachings on the Six Yogas alone in His Holiness's private meditation room, which was a small, bare room. While receiving the teachings, Lama practiced and had many experiences.
Once in Dharamsala, when I had lung, or wind disease, Lama told me, "With achievement of bliss and voidness, there is no wind disease. There is no place for tightness if you have bliss in your heart." I think Lama was talking from his own experience. Great meditators, even when dealing with problems, experience no depression themselves because of their tantric realizations. I think Lama's realization of bliss and voidness overwhelmed the many problems he had to deal with in relation to the Dharma Centers and students. He was never depressed and was always very happy.
At the end of 1982, Lama taught the first course on the Six Yogas of Naropa at Istituto Lama Tzong Khapa in Italy. From that time, even though he didn't normally travel with thangkas and pictures, Lama always kept a particular picture of Lama Tsongkhapa with him. It was a common postcard, but Lama told me that it was very precious, and in my ordinary view he seemed to have much more devotion for Lama Tsongkhapa. When he returned from the course, Lama told me, "While I was at Istituto Lama Tzong Khapa, I did Heruka self-initiation every morning before I taught the Six Yogas of Naropa. It seemed to benefit the students very much. Because I read many scriptures, the teachings were very effective, and many people had experiences." During that time, Lama was reading the section on the illusory body from the completion stage of Guhyasamaja in Lama Tsongkhapa's Lamp Thoroughly Illuminating the Five Stages, which contains the most extensive teaching on the illusory body. Lama then added, "At this time I developed incredibly deep devotion for Lama Tsongkhapa because of his profound teachings."
Jacie Keeley, Lama's secretary, also told me that during the course at Istituto Lama Tzong Khapa, she noticed one morning that Lama was crying just as he was about to begin his teaching on the Six Yogas. After Lama returned from giving the teaching, Jacie asked him why he had been crying. Lama said, "I saw my guru." It seems that Lama saw His Holiness Trijang Rinpoche, his root guru, who had passed away more than a year before.
Lama wrote a poem in praise of Lama Tsongkhapa's clear explanations of the illusory body. Lama said that he had been unclear about how to achieve the illusory body until he had read Lama Tsongkhapa's writings on the subject. He felt that is was only by the kindness of Lama Tsongkhapa that the practices of the illusory body had been clarified. Lama also wrote a commentary on the Six Yogas of Naropa, but he did not complete it.
In my view, Lama achieved the illusory body when he was at Istituto Lama Tzong Khapa. I think so because Lama said that he had found incredible faith in Lama Tsongkhapa and because he then read texts solely on the illusory body, mostly from the Guhyasamaja Tantra. I relate Lama's devotion to Lama Tsongkhapa to the fact that Lama Tsongkhapa gave the clearest and most extensive explanations of how to achieve the illusory body. When I looked through the texts that Lama took with him to Vajrapani Institute in mid-1983, when he taught the second course on the Six Yogas of Naropa, I found that they were all on Guhyasamaja and the illusory body. This indicates that Lama himself had achieved the illusory body.
Lama seemed to be able to read various texts in different rooms at the same time. When Lama was in retreat at Tushita Retreat Centre, for instance, he would have one text open in the retreat room, another open in the outer room, and yet another text open outside in the greenhouse. This reminded me of the stories His Holiness Zong Rinpoche told about meditators who had achieved the illusory body. While they were sleeping at night, they would use their subtle body to read and memorize many scriptures at the same time. I thought that Lama was able to read so many texts in such a short time because he did it at night with the illusory body. From the way Lama talked so confidently about the many actions that a yogi could do with their subtle body, I could see that Lama himself had this power.
When a new retreat house was being built at Tushita Retreat Cen-tre, one morning a big fire suddenly started. The carpenters and other workers were trying to put the fire out with water, but everyone feared that it was burning out of control. At the time Lama was having breakfast nearby on the roof of his house with his brother, Geshe Thinley. Lama didn't even stand up to look at the fire. He just sat in his chair, quite relaxed. The rest of us were very worried, but Lama was not worried at all. When I went to Lama, he said, "The fire isn't a big danger. It won't cause any harm." Even though the flames were very big, Lama remained relaxed, and he mentioned the story of a Tibetan monastery catching fire during Lama Tsongkhapa's time. Lama Tsongkhapa didn't need water or a lot of people to help him. He simply sat where he was and used his subtle body to put out the fire. I felt that the story was related to Lama's own actions to stop the danger from the fire.
Lama Yeshe was a great tantric practitioner, a real ascetic meditator, even though he didn't live alone in a cave. Lama was a great hidden yogi. He was a valid base to be labeled "yogi" not because he could perform tantric rituals but because he had unmistaken realizations of clear light and the illusory body. He reached the stage of tantra mahamudra.
Not long before he passed away, when Lama was considering whether to have a heart operation, he said, "It doesn't matter whether the operation is successful or not. I have used myself as a servant to others. I was able to do enough, and now I am completely satisfied. I have no worries." This is a great teaching for us; it is the essential teaching of Lama Yeshe and of Guru Shakyamuni Buddha.
As Shantideva says in A Guide to the Bodhisattva's Way of Life: May I
become a protector for those without one,
A guide for those who have entered the path;
May I become a bridge, a boat and a ship
For those who wish to cross over.
May I be an island for those who seek one
And a lamp for those needing light,
May I be a bed for all who wish to rest
And a servant for all who want a servant.
This was Lama's main teaching and exactly what he practiced all the time. This is Lama Yeshe's essential biography.
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