Venerable Lama Thubten Yeshe
Some twenty minutes before dawn on the first day of the Tibetan New Year—March 3, 1984—the heart of Lama Thubten Yeshe stopped beating. He was forty-nine years old.
Lama had been seriously ill for four months, although according to Western medical reports since 1974, it was a miracle that he was alive at all. Two valves in his heart were faulty and because of the enormous amount of extra work it had to do to pump blood, it had enlarged to about twice its normal size. And he himself had said ten years before that he was alive "only through the power of mantra."
Here, Lori de Aratanha and Robina Courtin report the events leading up to and immediately following the passing away of this great yogi and teacher, an extraordinary man who moved the hearts of thousands during his fifteen brief years among Westerners.
Everyone who knew Lama Yeshe knew that 'he had a bad heart.' Yet it was only in November last year  that they realized there was a serious danger to his life. A letter signed by three of his close students written on November 12th from Kopan Monastery in Nepal and addressed to all FPMT center directors reported that the observations of both Lumbum Rinpoche of Swayamhhu, Nepal, and Lama Zopa Rinpoche indicated that 'Lama will pass away within a year unless he takes time to do a long serious retreat and unless disharmony and division cease.' And Lama had agreed to accept a full long-life puja at Kopan at New Year the very day he eventually passed away.
Lama had arrived back in India in early October after a strenuous teaching tour of Europe and America. From Delhi he travelled to Dharamsala where he had a house in the grounds of the Tushita Retreat center. Here he stayed in seclusion.
Lama was not scheduled to go to Nepal to teach as he had done for fourteen years at the annual Kopan meditation course. Vicki Mackenzie, a London journalist and friend of Lama Yeshe for eight years, was at Kopan for the course. 'We were told that Lama was too sick. We didn't know where he was but we did know that he would not be coming. But, a couple of days before the end of the month-long course, suddenly. like magic, he appeared.
'It was morning. We all came out of the tent to greet him. It was so moving and terribly touching. All the small monks of Mount Everest Center were lining the road, the older monks on the roof of the gompa blowing conches and trumpets out over the valley. And everyone was so silent. There was such an incredible hush. Somehow it was very poignant and very holy. Lama Zopa went up to the land rover to greet Lama with unbelievable reverence, love just pouring out of him. Catherine and I, and others, burst into tears. It was so special and so moving.
'The silence was extraordinary. So unlike the usual joyful pandemonium of the monastery. We didn't know anything but somehow we felt that this was very, very special.'
And Lama Yeshe did teach. Two days later, at the end of the course, he gave first a question-and-answer session and the following day a four-and-a-half-hour teaching on refuge and bodhicitta.
'It was extraordinary,' said Vicki. 'For one month the hundred of us had been immersed in the serious business of a Iam rim course. It had been very intense. There had been much anguished discussion about the various traditional teachings Lama Zopa had been giving us.
'When Lama walked in I knew immediately that he was very ill. Still so caring though, and joking: "Oh. I don't know what I'm talking about!" But always so kind, so concerned about us. "Are you all right? Are you tired?" he would ask us. He showed just so much love.
'His answers were marvelous, somehow exactly what we needed. He completely demolished all our dualistic, narrow concepts. "Your Mickey Mouse minds! You are so boxed in, so narrow," he said. Somehow, his words were like a miracle. He spoke such utter common sense, made everything seem so simple. Our confusion and worries simply dissolved away. He knitted everyone together, cut across all divisions.'
Vicki had to leave Kopan the next day, so after his final talk she followed him out of the gompa to say goodbye. 'I was completely overwhelmed by his extraordinary kindness. He was obviously so ill, yet he showed only concern for me. "Are you all right dear? What can I do for you?" "No!" I said. "What can I do for you Lama?"
'He said he was fine. He took my hands and before leaving asked me to "give my love to all my dharma brothers and sisters in England."
'Lama had told me in an interview in 1978 that he "should have been dead years ago. But if someone tells you you're going to die, what can you do but give up? I don't give up," Lama said. "What these doctors don't see is that human beings are something special. We are beyond the ordinary concepts of what we think we are." That night, December 10th, Lama began vomiting and experiencing difficulty in breathing. He did not sleep, nor did he sleep the next night. On the morning of the 12th it was decided to take Lama to Delhi for urgent medical treatment.'
He traveled to Delhi with Karuna Cayton, an American student of Lama based at Kopan, and was admitted into the intensive coronary care unit of a good hospital. He stayed altogether for fifteen days under the close observation of two highly respected cardiologists. On January 1st Lama was released and remained another month in Delhi to recuperate.
On January 3rd Lama allowed—for the first time, according to Lama Zopa—mandala offerings to be made to him for his long life. On behalf of all his students, Australian monk and director of Lama's Dharamsala retreat center Max Redlich fervently requested Lama to live longer. Lama agreed that he 'could live for another two years.' He told Lama Zopa at this time that he 'could live for ten, twelve years, but it depends on the karma and hard prayers of the students.'
Since Lama had left Kopan on December 12th he had insisted that Karuna keep complete silence about his condition. In early January, Geshe Rabten, one of Lama's dearest teachers, stayed with him in Delhi. He instructed Lama 'to lift your cloak of silence. You should let people know about your condition so that your students can create merit.'
On January 8th Karuna wrote a letter to Lama's students at his centers detailing the past month's happenings.
Lama's heart was now failing so badly that congestion in his heart was making breathing difficult; congestion in his liver and other abdominal organs were causing pain and vomiting.
By early February it seemed clear that Lama should undergo surgery to replace his faulty heart valves. Stanford Hospital in California was chosen.
Lama Yeshe arrived at San Francisco Airport, two hours from Stanford, on February 3rd. He was accompanied by Lama Zopa, who had been with him constantly for the past month, American nun Max Mathews and his Indian doctor. He was met by John Jackson, director of Lama’s California center, Vajrapani Institute. Lama looked 'weak and surprisingly thin,' but still had his vibrant smile. He was driven straight to Stanford Hospital.
Registered nurse and student of Lama Yeshe, Shirley Begley, volunteered her services. She arrived at Stanford on the sixth. The results of the extensive tests on Lama confirmed previous diagnosis, and doctors suggested surgery as soon as he was strong enough.
On February 8th Lama was released from hospital and allowed home, where he would have full-time nursing care: Shirley would be joined later by Lennie, another nurse, Barbara Vauier and others.
Lama was driven to his home in Aptos, an ocean-side suburb of nearby Santa Cruz forty-five minutes from the Vajrapani land. The house, overlooking vast expanses of the Pacific, had been bought for Lama and renovated by some of his students.
He preferred to be home. He enjoyed his garden, and within two days was pottering around outside. But by the twelfth Lama was feeling faint and could no longer hold food down. He remained in bed and needed constant nursing.
Shirley was worried. Her medical experience told her that definitely Lama should be back in hospital, but he did not want to go. 'I don't need to go,' he said. 'You don't have to worry.'
Throughout the entire period of Lama's illness, Lama Zopa was in constant touch by phone with Kyabje Song Rinpoche in Switzerland as to when and how to act for Lama's benefit. He also consulted frequently His Holiness Dudjum Rinpoche in Paris. And he himself would always make observations in the traditional manner whenever decisions were needed.
Often, this proved difficult for the nurses: their observations as nurses told them one thing and Lama Zopa's would tell them another. However, they learned, they said, to let go and in retrospect can see the benefits of the decisions that were made.
On the evening of February 15th, Shirley was in the kitchen with Rinpoche. Lama was asleep in his room. Shirley was explaining to Rinpoche her perception of the seriousness of Lama's condition. Understanding the importance of Lama Zopa in the decision-making process, she wanted to clarify with him just how much responsibility she had. She asked Rinpoche if she could make the decision to hospitalize Lama if an emergency situation arose. 'You mean to save Lama's life?' Rinpoche asked. 'Yes,' said Shirley. Rinpoche agreed that she could.
Just then Lama's bell rang from his room. They rushed to him and it was immediately obvious to Shirley that Lama had had a stroke. She took his blood pressure and Rinpoche gave him some Tibetan medicine. Rinpoche agreed they should call an ambulance, which arrived five minutes later and rushed Lama to a nearby hospital. The stroke was severe. The left side of Lama's body was paralyzed. In spite of this, and against his doctor's advice, after one night in the hospital Lama insisted on going home.
During the next two weeks, Shirley, Lennie and Barbara nursed Lama around the clock. Many students worked continuously. Everyone was very happy to he able to serve Lama. They would feed, clean and massage him. Barbara said she could feel how utterly relaxed Lama was, quite unlike the way an ordinary person would be under the same circumstances, of this she was sure.
Throughout the days, the conversations with Lama were brief; he did not speak much. Lama used short sentences and spoke directly. They learned how to be sensitive to his movements and learned how far they could go in their caring for him. At first they were hesitant about touching his body or wiping away perspiration and mucous. But Lama let them do everything. All of them felt incredibly grateful for this opportunity to repay Lama's kindness to them. They told him this, and said that he was a mother and father to all his students.
Throughout the days, of course, the students with Lama were continuously praying. As were his students around the world; Lama Zopa had given special instructions to all the centers.
Rinpoche discovered that he'd been carrying a Tibetan text on how to deal with paralysis. There were specific prayers and mantras to do in order to protect against more paralysis and reverse what already existed. It explained what food and exercises were suitable. Rinpoche instructed the people looking after Lama to say the mantra, om dumbali dumbali su su shey shey soha, loudly so that Lama could hear it and that they were to get him to repeat it seven times. The text also said that there should not be sparkling sunlight or mirror reflections in the room, so during the daylight hours Lama's room was kept dim.
As the days passed, Lama's paralysis seemed to improve. However, his overall condition was weakening. Song Rinpoche was consulted about whether or not Lama should return to hospital. He advised that, no, Lama should stay at home for the time being, and that he himself would come to see Lama soon.
Song Rinpoche arrived from Switzerland on February 20th and stayed with Lama for three days. He performed many pujas and gave Lama initiations. By the twenty-sixth, however, three days after Song Rinpoche had left, Lama worsened. He was vomiting continually and was considerably weaker.
At Lama Zopa's request, Dr. Don Brown, another student of Lama's, came to examine him. Immediately Don recommended that Lama go to hospital to receive intensive care. He was taken to the Presbyterian Hospital in San Francisco. After tests, it was concluded that Lama must have surgery as soon as his strength could be built up.
It was agreed that neither Stanford nor the Presbyterian Hospital was the place for the necessary heart surgery. After much brainstorming, and observations by Rinpoche, Cedars-Sinai Medical Center in Los Angeles was decided upon; this was confirmed by Song Rinpoche in Switzerland.
Meanwhile, Lama's strength was gradually building up, as he was being intravenously fed. And his paralysis was remarkably improved. Plans went ahead to have him moved to Los Angeles. Max Math—Lama called her 'Mummy Max'—organized an air ambulance, a helicopter, to take Lama on the five- hundred mile journey south. He was accompanied by a cardiologist, Lennie and Max, and met at the hospital three hours later by long-time student John Schwartz.
He was placed in the coronary care unit. The hospital and Lama's doctor there, Steven Corde, were incredibly kind. In spite of regulations they allowed people to stay with Lama continuously. Characteristically, Lama treated Dr. Corde as if he were an old, dear friend.
Steven Corde told Rinpoche and Lennie that Lama's condition was critical, 'like walking on a cliff.' But he felt there was hope. Rinpoche asked him what he would do. Dr. Corde explained a procedure for strengthening the heart and prefaced his answer by saying, 'If he were a member of my own family I would...' Rinpoche said, 'Doctor, this is the last hospital we will go to. You seem to understand Lama and his case, so, as you would do for your own family, please you do for Lama.' And he requested to be informed about any crucial decisions so that he could 'check up.'
As in all the hospitals, the medical staff were told about the Tibetan Buddhist attitude towards the death process and, as everywhere, Steven Corde and the staff of the Cedars-Sinai were sensitive and understanding.
That night, and the following, March 2nd, the last night of Lama's life, Rinpoche and Thubten Minimal, a young Sherpa monk from Kopan who had served Lama for years, stayed with Lama. Also with them on the last night was Vajrapani resident, Chuck Thomas.
Nine years ago, in a conversation with Chuck about his heart, Lama told him that doctors believed he should be dead. He said that he was alive because of his psychic power and that when the time came to go he would just go; that it would be as simple as that. After his stroke Chuck asked Lama if he remembered that conversation, and Lama said yes, he remembered it clearly, and that now was the time. That was fifteen days before Lama came to Cedars-Sinai.
Chuck spent ten hours with Lama on the eve of his passing. He said Lama was completely conscious, talking and laughing with the nurses. He ate strawberries and talked about those that he grew in his garden. Some of his Los Angeles students visited Lama. They said he was as kind as ever, sending love to everyone.
In the middle of the night Rinpoche sent Chuck out to rest, then to make torma offerings and White Tara pills: Rinpoche intended to offer Lama a White Tara empowerment on the morning of Losar, the Tibetan New Year.
Around three-thirty or four in the morning Lama asked Rinpoche to do the Heruka sadhana with self- initiation with him. Lama was able to sit up for the meditation. Two students in the room as well were reciting White Tara mantras.
The moment Rinpoche had finished the Heruka sadhana Lama's heart beat changed; it could be observed on the monitor. It beat faster, then slower, and his breathing changed. A nurse came in and asked Lama if he was all right. ‘Yes,' he said. Was he hurting? 'No.'
Barely twenty minutes before dawn, at seven minutes past five on the first day of the new year, Lama Yeshe's heart stopped. Rinpoche immediately checked with Song Rinpoche whether or not to attempt resuscitation; he said yes. A team worked on Lama's heart for two hours. Steven Corde reported to Lama Zopa that there was no response. Rinpoche asked, ‘Doctor, what is the longest time you have worked on someone after their heart has stopped?' 'Three hours,' he said. Lennie asked if he had had success. 'No,' he told her. Rinpoche said, ‘I think it is time to stop."
From that point on no one was to touch Lama's body. Geshe Gyeltsen, who has a center in Los Angeles, arrived at Cedars Sinai. He and Rinpoche performed pujas at Lama's bedside, and students were told to do Heruka mantras. Meanwhile, a room on another floor was being prepared for Lama's body.
At eleven o'clock two orderlies gently wheeled Lama's body, covered in his saffron robes, through the hospital corridors in a silent procession. Rinpoche had permission to keep Lama's body there till ten in the evening.
Rinpoche and the students set up the quiet corner room as a sanctuary, making an altar on a bedside table and placing blankets on the floor for people to sit comfortably. When things were settled, Rinpoche stood before Lama's holy body and, with what one student called 'exquisite devotion,' made three full length prostrations before sitting.
People sat with Lama throughout the day, always reciting mantras. Just after five-thirty in the evening Rinpoche broke the utter silence in the room by suddenly shouting Heruka mantras. Chuck thought he noticed Lama's head move slightly under the covering robes, but felt he must have been hallucinating. But Rinpoche bent down to him and said, 'Now Lama's meditation is finished.'
Earlier in the day Lennie had made arrangements with a local mortuary, Abbott and Hast—recommended by the hospital as a mortuary that 'took pride in catering to special-interest, religious and ethnic groups'— to take Lama's body from the hospital. Mr. Hast was located on a yacht in the Pacific performing a burial at sea.
He was very kind. He arranged from there the appropriate formalities for obtaining permission from the governor's office to perform the cremation on the Vajrapani land: observations had found that either Vajrapani or Dharamsala would be most suitable.
Although it was a Saturday afternoon there were no hitches: permission was granted and a fire permit issued by the Boulder Creek environmental office, for which someone there graciously offered the two dollar fee.
Lama's body was moved that night to Mr. Hast's mortuary. Rinpoche was given special permission to spend the night there. Students who had spent sleepless nights at the hospital were encouraged by Rinpoche to go home. Others came to sit through the night with him and Thubten Monlam.
The room was large with comfortable sofas and pillows and chairs. Lama's body was at one end of the room and was covered with his saffron robe, a bouquet of white carnations at his feet. The overhead light was dim and the soft flicker of candlelight gave a most serene and peaceful atmosphere. There were hot plates for boiling water, and tea and tsog offerings from the hospital pujas were plentiful. Rinpoche suggested that people make prostrations and recite the practice to the thirty-five buddhas.
During the night, Rinpoche left the room to make phone calls. One was to request Song Rinpoche again to come to California from Switzerland, this time to oversee the cremation of Lama's body. Later, when he heard that he would come, he smiled and said, 'It will be good for the students.' At eleven in the morning of Sunday March 4th Lama Yeshe's body was taken from the mortuary and driven north to Vajrapani by one of the residents, Tom Waggoner, accompanied by a caravan of cars.
The journey took fourteen hours. At one in the morning of Monday they wound their way slowly up the dark bumpy road from the town of Boulder Creek into the huge redwoods of the retreat center. Residents and retreaters were lining the path to the gompa, and the sounds of conches, bells, damarus and chants, resonating into the night sky, greeted the cars as they approached.
The closed coffin, draped in white offering scarves, was placed by the altar at the front of the gompa, where it would remain until Wednesday afternoon, the eve of the cremation itself.
The news of Lama's death had started to spread around the world on Saturday morning. Although it was well known that he had been gravely ill, the fact of his death was stunning, almost impossible to take in. An Australian nun said that the last time she saw Lama, in Italy five months before, he had seemed like an old man, needing help to walk and scarcely able to breathe. 'If it had been any other person of the same age I would have known they were close to death; but somehow, because it was Lama, I just couldn't, wouldn't allow my mind to grasp it.'
- Next >>