Lama Thubten Yeshe — the hippy lama

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“…the most important thing to know is your own mind and how it works.”

— Lama Yeshe

Back in the 1970’s, Lama Yeshe was known as the Hippy Lama. His first Western student Zina Rachevsky introduced him to the scruffy travelers with whom he practiced English, and who in turn congregated eagerly around him. However, there was much more to Lama Thubten Yeshe than colorful language. He wasn’t afraid to wander away from traditional Tibetan explanations, and was genuinely fascinated by the Western mind, particularly the illusions of consumerism. Lama Yeshe had a passionate – and among the early Tibetan refugees highly unusual – interest in things non-Tibetan. My first encounter with him was in 1975, in Kopan Monastery, Nepal, during the annual one-month meditation course.

The following account is extracted from preliminary drafts of The Novice.


We made three head-to-ground bows and settled down as Lama Yeshe chanted a slow mantra. The monks and nuns joined in, and the rest of us mumbled along. Lama then lapsed into silence, his face losing all expression. When he finally opened his eyes he looked around curiously and rocked from side to side. The silence was so prolonged, and he seemed so content to look at us, that any sense of expectancy faded. We sat patiently. Only then did he begin to talk, picking his words carefully.

“Meditation that clarifies who we are,” he began, “is worthwhile. But … if it makes you more confused, then it’s not.” He stared at us enquiringly. “If you come looking for academic explanations of Buddhism you’ll be disappointed. The purpose of this course,” he stated firmly, “is to see our own minds for what they are. This is simple, not complicated.” He smiled mischievously and the crowd rustled.

He fell silent, rocking back and forth, fingering his rosary and scrutinizing us. The audience fidgeted. He continued with a theatrical arsenal of words, gesticulations and facial expressions. He went over each thought thoroughly, like a writer working a paragraph, sometimes discarding whole metaphors and starting over. He smiled and laughed often, engaged in his task.

“All goodness and badness, highness and lowness, samsara and nirvana come from mind.” He tapped his temple, adding civilization, houses, philosophy and doctrines to the list. “Everything comes from mind,” he said. “All causation is mind – your self, your senses, your sense organs, your physical and mental energy.”

“You know,” he said, “They say the East is more superstitious than the West, but in my opinion…,” he paused for dramatic effect, “the West is far more superstitious. For example,” he grinned, “Supermarkets!”

There were a few hesitant chuckles.

In shaky English but with faultless command of his audience he elaborated a hilarious metaphor, parodying consumerism and the cycle of branding, advertising, desire and money. He reminded us not to take his ideas at face value but to draw on our own experience and figure things out for ourselves. “You check up,” he admonished repeatedly.

He reminded us that we’d left the comforts of home to come and sit cross-legged for hours at a time in the hope of finding something to believe in. “People in the West,” he commented, “are led into desiring objects that just increase their need for more. But these things aren’t satisfactory,” he said. “Otherwise once you get one, you wouldn’t want more – you’d be satisfied. But the more you’ve got, the more you want. Right?” he demanded emphatically. “Dissatisfaction is on the increase, not satisfaction!” He laughed.

“Superstition makes you act, leaving an imprint in the mind that produces its own fruit – another action. Superstition is like the air moving over the ocean, causing waves, altering the shape of the planet, casting up landmasses. Just like that, superstition shakes the mind and creates shapes, colors and all kinds of different things. This is karma.”

He described the superstitious mind as deluded and unclear, motioning the stirring of liquid in a pot. “Your minds are like this. The unclear mind perceives an unclear vision which has nothing to do with reality, yet the superstitious mind still believes in its object.”

Our sense of an unchanging self is illusory. We even think it’s in control. But the mind is a rushing stream of conscious moments, bumping into each other like billiard balls. A small act, especially a habitual one, provokes a stream of karmic fruits that overwhelm us and make us act in spite of ourselves. That’s why meditation’s so tough.


teaching under the tent at Kopan
(by kind permission of Lama Yeshe Wisdom Archive


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