“It seemed as though he was willing to do anything to help people overcome their limitations and unhappiness and experience their higher selves.”
I first met Lama Yeshe in January 1971 at Bodh Gaya: the site of Shakyamuni Buddha’s enlightenment. it was my first trip to India and I had just arrived a few days previously together with my close childhood friend, Alex Berzin. I had come to Bodh Gaya to spend a few days before traveling around South India. Shortly after my arrival I learned that a Tibetan lama, newly arrived from Nepal, was going to hold a question and answer session for interested Westerners at the Tibetan Temple. This would be my first opportunity to meet a Tibetan lama and, since I’d come to India expressly to study Tibetan Buddhism, I was naturally very interested in what I would find.
At the appointed time a large group of us assembled in one of the upper rooms at the temple. And after a while, accompanied by a young American couple, a Tibetan monk came into the room, smiling broadly. Although there was nothing special about his physical appearance, this first sight had a galvanizing effect upon me. I felt that something in my heart – something that I had never known existed before – had suddenly been aroused. I remember feeling at that time that it was as if my heart were filled with iron filings and an electromagnet had just walked into the room!
Then he began to speak. To say that his English was broken would be generous: his vocabulary was extremely limited, his pronunciation strange and his grammar anarchistic. Yet I felt at the time that I had never experienced such deep communication with anyone ever before. When he spoke about a warm peeling’ it took my brain a few minutes to figure out what he was talking about, but my heart understood immediately. Indeed, by the time the hour was up, I was experiencing a warm feeling the likes of which I had never known.
There were two deep impressions I carried with me after that first meeting. The first was that this man – whose name I did not know – would be a completely trustworthy guide along the path to spiritual development. The second impression, perhaps even deeper than the first, was of his familiar and easily recognizable human qualities. This monk was certainly no distant, austere and unreachable being but rather had all the earthly human qualities I treasured. This came as a great relief to me since I had harbored a suspicion that spiritual evolvement according to Buddhism might entail emotional coldness. This monk’s warm and humorous presence refuted this fear immediately and completely.
Two and a half years passed before I saw Lama Yeshe again and during that time I often wondered if my first impression of him might not have been exaggeratedly romantic. Perhaps my immediate attraction to him had more to do with my arrival in such a strange and exotic place as India than it did with any qualities that this lama actually possessed. But at my second meeting, at Tushita at Dharamsala, I received the same overwhelming impression of heightened awareness and human contact that I had at t the first. This time I met him in private. At the end of our meeting he stood up, held my hands in his and, as warm energy poured into me, the features of his face seemed to rearrange themselves into the perfect symmetry of a Buddha.
During the thirteen years I was fortunate to know Lama Yeshe, I had the opportunity of observing him in many situations. And during all that time I never encountered anything to challenge the first impressions I received of him. His warmth and humor seemed inexhaustible and his devotion to others and to the teachings of dharma never faltered, even when his health was apparently failing. It seemed as though he was willing to do anything to help people overcome their limitations and unhappiness and experience their higher selves. In pursuit of these aims he was often outrageous! He would sing, dance, tell jokes, and even flirt if it would help establish contact, yet at no time did he overstep the bounds of the strictest self- discipline.
If, out of all the many facets of his ebullient personality, I had to choose one that was most characteristic of Lama Yeshe I would have to pick his constant urge to make deep contact with others. I once saw him act out in pantomime, to a Spanish woman who knew no English and who was worried about her son and his family, his assurance to her that he himself would keep an eye on them and make sure they were well. And his urge to communicate clearly was not limited to his personal contact with others. I have often seen him reject the standard commentarial interpretations of a particular text he was teaching in favor of something more direct and immediate. When dealing with a particularly difficult problem of Buddhist philosophy, he would often say, ‘Concerning this subject, the Pransangikas say this and the Chittamatrins say that, but the best way for you to understand it is like this.’ No matter what subject he was discussing, he made sure that all of his listeners had something personal and practical to take away with them.
There are hundreds of stories that could be told about Lama Yeshe, yet anyone who ever saw his smile, heard his laughter and listened to his teachings already knows the essence of them all. Some people used to refer to him as the ‘Thank you Lama’ because while he was devoting himself to others he never stopped thanking us for receiving his warmth and generosity. For me, it is impossible to enumerate much less to repay the motherly and fatherly kindness that he showed me. Thank you, Lama.