Lama Yeshe Losal Rinpoche

 

 

 

Born in 1943 to a farming family in Kham, east Tibet and named Jamphel Drakpa, or Jamdrak for short,
he spent an idyllic early childhood close to nature, helping his family with the yaks and sheep and playing in the lush pastures with other village children. This carefree existence came to an abrupt end when young Jamdrak was chosen to join bis brother, Choje Akong Tulku Rinpoche at his monastery of Dolma Lhakang. Akong Tulku Rinpoche's birth had been accompanied by many auspicious signs and, although he was only three years older than Jamdrak, he had been recognised as a Tulku, or reincarnate Lama, by the then head of the Kagyu Lineage, His Holiness the 16th Karmapa. At the age of six he had been enthroned as Abbot of Dolma Lhakang monastery where he began rigorous training in the teachings of Tibetan Buddhism.

It is a Tibetan tradition that if a Tulku is head of a monastery, then one of his brothers is trained to assist him. As many auspicious signs had also occurred when Jamdrak was born and he too had been recognised as a tulku, but had not been officially confirmed because of the political situation, he was the obvious choice. At the age of ten Jamdrak left the bosom of his family to join Akong Tulku Rinpoche and begin his formal education at the bleak, remote monastery of Dolma Lhakang.

Jamdrak studied diligently, if reluctantly, under a succession of Lamas but at the age of fifteen bis studies were rudely interrupted when the Chinese invaded Tibet. In 1959 the two young brothers, together with an older brother, several Rinpoches and a party of three hundred people, fled the monastery. They had been advised of the impending invasion by a very high Lama and warned to leave or they would be in danger of losing their lives. As the Chinese had occupied Lhasa, the party was forced to find an alternative route. A perilous journey across the Himalayas took them through frozen wastes, high mountain passes and raging rivers. Although they were on the point of death, the brothers were among thirteen people, out of the three hundred who had set out, who made it to the Indian border. The rest of their group had either died of starvation, been captured or killed.

Once in the heat and unfamiliar environment of India, many of the recently arrived Tibetan refugees fell sick. Jamdrak's elder brother died of TB and Jamdrak himself contracted both TB and smallpox. But following a major operation in which one of his lungs was removed, he recovered well and was able to resume his education. After passing his exams at the school for young tulkus he was chosen to join a group of gifted pupils being groomed for jobs as administrators of the new Tibetan settlements.

Following an audience with His Holiness the Dalai Lama, Jamdrak secured an important and well paid post as administrator for a large Tibetan settlement in southern India. However, this turned out to be short lived, as a meaningful encounter in New Delhi with His Holiness the 16th Karmapa irrevocably changed the young man's life. Seeing his potential, the Karmapa invited Jamdrak to join him at his monastery in Sikkim. Coming from a family of Kagyu Buddhists Jamdrak had great devotion to the Karmapa. He did not hesitate to give up his prestigious job and join His Holiness at Rumtek Monastery in Sikkim.

As a young lay person with a good education and reasonable English, Jamdrak found himself assisting the Karmapa in a secretarial capacity and also in the privileged position of receiving Buddhist teachings from the very highest Lamas. When Freda Bedi, the remarkable English woman who became ordained as Sister Palmo, arrived at Rumtek to take teachings from the Karmapa, Jamdrak acted as translator. He was allowed to take the initiations with Sister Palmo, given by Karmapa for the practices of Vajrayogini, Karma Pakshi and Gyalwa Gyamtso. Even though Jamdrak was not a monk he was nevertheless given a room alongside the four young regents of the Kagyu Lineage and was allowed to meditate and practise in a room of the temple that held all the precious relics of the Kagyupas. The Karmapa often referred io Jamdrak as his son and treated him in the same way as the high Rinpoches.

Despite his devotion to the Karmapa, Jamdrak did not fully appreciate this precious opportunity and, after coming into contact with some young American Peace Corps volunteers, he became curious about the West. Enlisting the help of his friend Chogyam Trungpa Rinpoche who, with Akong Tulku Rinpoche, had by this time set up Kagyu Samye Ling Tibetan Centre in Scotland, Jamdrak managed to cut through the Indian bureaucratic red tape and obtain a passport, visa and plane ticket to Britain in record time.

His arrival in Britain coincided with the sixties hippie movement. Young aristocrats, actors and pop stars were among those who flocked to Samye Ling and Jamdrak lost no time in throwing himself into their exciting, hedonistic lifestyle. Meanwhile his brother Akong Tulku Rinpoche, who was busy running Samye Ling, patiently tolerated his younger brother's excesses, hoping he would grow out of them before long. Although his brother had given him everything, Jamdrak started to feel empty and dissatisfied inside. The turning point came after a fateful fishing trip to the Orkney's with a family friend.

As a Buddhist, Jamphel Drakpa wasn't happy with the idea of fishing, but had agreed to go so as not to disappoint his friend. Although he didn't know how to fish, the fish just found his hook and before long there was a large heap of them lying in the boat which his friend then killed by hitting them over the head. The friend was really pleased with their catch and, lining up all the dead fish, took pictures that he proudly showed to Akong Tulku Rinpoche on their return home.

For the first time in his life Jamdrak saw his brother Akong Tulku Rinpoche become visibly moved. His face was looked pained as he took the young rebel to one side, and his voice was full of sadness as he explained to Jamdrak how he had promised their parents that he would look after him. Akong Tulku Rinpoche said he had tried to be both mother and father to his brother and had always given him whatever he asked for. Although he had tried to bring Jamdrak up as a good Buddhist and a decent person, he felt that he had failed and was unhappy as he could not be at peace with their parents.

Jamphel Drakpa's heart was torn with anguish and remorse. He realised how he had previously resented his brother, as if it were somehow his fault that they had been separated from their parents at a young age. In that instant he saw how kind Akong Tulku Rinpoche had always been, never refusing him anything and always giving him whatever he had. As he says in his own words, 'If he had beaten me it could not have been a worse pain than that which I felt at that time. His kindness could have changed the heart of a monster. From then on I was no longer interested in rebelling against him. I wanted to change and do something to make him happy and proud of me.'

Hearing that His Holiness Karmapa was going to America at the invitation of Chogyam Trungpa Rinpoche, Jamdrak requested Akong Tulku Rinpoche to allow him to go and be reunited with His Holiness and with the Dharma path. Akong Rinpoche complied and a chastened but determined Jamdrak went to join the Karmapa and his entourage on an extensive tour of the US and Canada.

Towards the end of the tour, His Holiness met a wealthy Chinese Buddhist benefactor who offered him a large tract of land in New York State for the purpose of establishing a Dharma centre. Much to his amazement, Jamdrak was appointed as Secretary and Treasurer of this project by the Karmapa, with another young Tibetan, Lama Tenzin Chonyi to be President. With the help of the Chinese benefactor Jamdrak and Lama Tenzin first rented a property in New York and invited several Tibetan Lamas over from India to begin giving teachings. Before long a new centre named Karma Triyana Dharmachakra was set up in a peaceful, rural setting near Woodstock. With Khenpo Karthar Rinpoche, Bardor Tulku Rinpoche and Lama Ganga as resident teachers the Dharma began to flourish in New York State and in the reformed Jamdrak.

Whenever high Lamas such as Tai Situpa and Thrangu Rinpoche came to visit, Jamdrak would receive initiations and teachings. He also practised the Four Foundations under the guidance of Khenpo Karthar. His mind was no longer fascinated with the trappings of Western civilisation for he had seen that it did not bring any lasting happiness. Knowing that he could not help himself, his brother, or anyone else until he had established some clarity and stability of mind, Jamdrak determined that it was not enough to practise as a lay Buddhist. He needed to rid himself of worldly distractions by becoming a monk and going on retreat. When His Holiness Karmapa next visited the US, Jamdrak asked to be ordained.

In May 1980, on the auspicious day commemorating the Buddha's enlightenment, His Holiness the 16th Gyalwa Karmapa bestowed full Gelong ordination on Jamphel Drakpa and gave him the Dharma name of Gelong Yeshe Losal. The ordination ceremony took place at the Karma Triyana Dharmachakra Centre in the presence of many high Lamas, including Jamgon Kontrul, Ponlop Rinpoche, Bardor Tulku, Khenpo Khartar, and Lama Ganga. After spending his first week as a monk with His Holiness in Washington DC, Yeshe Losal said goodbye to Karmapa, for what turned out to be the last time. When he returned to the Centre his last act, before entering into strict retreat, was to offer all his possessions io His Holiness Karmapa.

Yeshe Losal had already completed the Four Foundation Practices three times. In order to further his practice in solitude he had chosen a comfortable retreat cottage with its own bathroom and kitchen. However, when the great master Kalu Rinpoche visited, he advised Yeshe Losal to throw himself into his practice one hundred percent. Kalu Rinpoche said there was no point in him locking himself away in his nice cosy retreat house only to dip his toes into the practice. He should immerse himself fully and be like Milarepa, practising with every bone in his body.

Following Kalu Rinpoche's advice, Yeshe Losal read the biography and the songs of Milarepa and was moved to tears by the great Yogi Saint's story. He heard how Milarepa had overcome all obstacles and suffered tremendous hardships in order to achieve complete enlightenment in a single lifetime. Yeshe Losal saw himself as a wild being who needed to purify and tame his mind. He knew it would take great effort so, as well as meditating, he did at least three hours of non-stop prostrations a day, wearing out three prostration boards in the process. With Khenpo Karthar Rinpoche as his mentor Yeshe Losal also received teachings from the highest Lamas of the Kagyu Lineage, including Jamgon Kontrul, who gave him the ernpowerment of White Tara, and Golshir Gyaltsapa from whom he received instructions in the Six Yogas of Naropa.

For the next five years Yeshe Losal practised relentlessly, overcoming both outer and inner obstacles. The comfort and tranquillity of his retreat cottage had been shattered by the arrival of heavy machinery as building work began on the large temple that was to become the shrine room for the Centre. To make matters worse, the water and electricity connections were cut, so the bathroom and toilet were unusable. He was reduced to using a plastic camping toilet for a lavatory and standing outside in the rain when he needed a shower! To add to his trials his house became a wildlife sanctuary. A large beaver dug a home for himself underneath the floorboards, while racoons and skunks fought fierce battles that would leave stinking memories for days afterwards. His secluded retreat cabin had turned into a torture chamber!

Although noise from the building work shook his little retreat house to its foundations, he remembered the trials that Milarepa had endured and strengthened his resolve, determined to see the positive side of the situation. A little noise and inconvenience was a small price to pay, compared with the benefit of building a beautiful shrine room for a Dharma Centre where the Buddha's teachings would flourish and benefit many beings. Later, Kalu Rinpoche said of Lama Yeshe Losal that he was the inheritor of all his wisdom and was his main lineage holder.

After five years Lama Yeshe Losal was requested by Akong Tulku Rinpoche to return to Samye Ling where his other brother and sister had arrived from Tibet. Emerging from his retreat house, his body was almost skeletal, but his mind was crystal clear. He flew to Scotland to meet his family and was persuaded by Akong Tulku Rinpoche to resume his retreat at Samye Ling's purpose built Purelands Retreat Centre, rather than returning to the US.

Purelands had been established to accommodate practitioners entering the traditional Buddhist closed retreats lasting either four years or three years and three months. When the long retreat finished in 1988 Lama Yeshe continued his solitary meditation. But before the next one could take place, the buildings had to be expanded to accommodate over forty men and women who were waiting to take part. Consequently Lama Yeshe once again found himself meditating in the middle of a building site with people working all day for seven months in order to get the building finished in time. Lama Yeshe's porch became the storage place for building materials, including hundreds of bags of cement. As the dust entered his window and his one good lung he refused to let the constant noise and commotion disturb him and instead he would practise patience and attain the pure view, seeing the noise as the herald of a new retreat that would benefit many more people.

When the Retreat Master passed away, Akong Tulku Rinpoche asked his brother to take over the responsibility. Gradually, Lama Yeshe became spiritual advisor not only in the retreat but also at Samye Ling. As Akong Tulku Rinpoche's work for Rokpa Trust took him to Tibet and other countries for increasingly longer periods, Lama Yeshe became more involved in the daily running of Samye Ling. Many young Westerners were drawn to seek his advice and, having experienced their way of life, Lama Yeshe was ideally equipped to help them deal with their problems. In 1995 Akong Tulku Rinpoche requested Khentin Tai Situpa to formally appoint Lama Yeshe Losal as Abbot of Kagyu Samye Ling.

Having found peace of mind by becoming a monk and wholeheartedly practising meditation, Lama Yeshe felt others would also be able to benefit from similar experience. He knew that most Westerners would be unfamiliar with the idea of ordination, therefore he instituted a system whereby they could take vows as novice monks or nuns for one year. If, after their year was up, they wished to extend their vows they could then do so. In this way the number of western Sangha at Kagyu Samye Ling and its associated Centres has gradually grown to more than fifty monks and nuns, many of whom now have full ordination and a lifetime commitment. As well as practising meditation and engaging in Buddhist studies, Sangha are also involved in running the Centres.

Unlike most Tibetan lamas, Lama Yeshe has no monastery to maintain in Tibet, he therefore considers Kagyu Samye Ling as his monastery and is fully committed to establishing the Sangha and continuing the lineage in the West.

In order to best help the people who turn to him for guidance, Lama Yeshe sees it as imperative to take time out from his busy schedule and enter into a period of intensive retreat each year. It was at Akong Tulku Rinpoche's suggestion that Lama Yeshe sought out the renowned but elderly meditation master, Tulku Urgyen Rinpoche and requested the master to pass on the precious lineage of Bardo Retreat practice. Tulku Urgyen Rinpoche, sensing that Lama Yeshe would succeed where others had failed in this most difficult but effective practice, not only passed on the profound transmission but also allowed Lama Yeshe to use his own retreat hut.

Despite the primitive conditions of the tiny hut with its dirt floor, and lack of water, heat or light, with only a pipe through the roof to allow air to circulate, Lama Yeshe succeeded in accomplishing this most testing of practices with a clear and steady mind. Some years later, he repeated the Bardo Retreat in his own retreat cabin on Holy Island and is the only known living person in Europe to have twice completed the forty nine day Bardo Retreat in total darkness. This experience, together with his previous twelve years of solitary retreat, more than bore out the description of him that His Holiness the 16th Karmapa had given when he advised anyone who wished to learn meditation to look no further than Lama Yeshe Losal.

Lama Yeshe's wish for the Dharma to take root and blossom in the West was given fresh impetus when, in 1990, he was approached by an Irish lady who told him she owned an island in the Firth of Clyde. She wished to sell the island and had been guided by a vision of Mother Mary to approach the Buddhists of Samye Ling. And so, on a cold December day, Lama Yeshe sailed across from the Isle of Arran to the small but impressive Holy Island, gazing for the first time at its wild beauty and the imposing mountain of Mulloch Mor with its summit wreathed in mist.

Once ashore, Lama Yeshe felt an immediate affinity for the island's rugged terrain, so reminiscent of his lost homeland of Tibet. After exploring the island Lama Yeshe sat on the shore as night fell, looking out over the sea towards Lamlash on the Isle of Arran where street lamps lit up the bay like so many butterlamp offerings. It was then he remembered a vision he had seen years before while practising dream yoga in his retreat at Woodstock. He had experienced flying over a beautiful island that was surrounded by twinkling lights. Sitting on that shoreline ten years later, Lama Yeshe knew he had a strong connection io the island and should do everything in his power to acquire it.

Knowing its ancient history as a place of deep spiritual significance in pre-Christian and Celtic Christian times, Lama Yeshe felt inspired to reawaken the island's sacred past and develop it as place of refuge and retreat, not only for Buddhists, but for people of all faiths. In spite of a lack of funds, Lama Yeshe's vision for Holy Island was so strong that he was able to fire the imagination of others and after a massive fundraising effort the island was signed over to Rokpa Trust in April 1992.

Meanwhile, Lama Yeshe Losal's workload became increasingly full. Apart from his work at Samye Ling, Lama Yeshe travelled widely, teaching at Samye Dzongs and associated centres around the world. His non-denominational approach and easy manner also made him a popular speaker with other groups such as the Global Business Network who invited him to speak to the international business community. On one such occasion in Maastricht, Lama Yeshe Losal addressed a group of the top six hundred managers of Shell and was later praised by their Chairman as being the only person who had ever been able to keep these executives not only silent but also meditating for fifteen minutes!

Uniquely, Lama Yeshe Losal is also the only Tibetan Lama to have been honoured by Buddhists of the Theravadin tradition when, in November 1998, he was awarded the title of Sasana Kirti Sri, or Illustrious Renowned Teacher, at the Award Ceremony of the Sarvodaya Bikkhu Congress in Sri Lanka. In February 1998 he was invited to participate in an historic ordination ceremony for over one hundred nuns at the holy place of Bodgaya in India.

As well as acting as one of the preceptors on this auspicious occasion, Lama Yeshe also took eleven of his own nuns to receive the full Bhikkuni or Gelongma vows, thereby enabling full ordination of nuns within the Tibetan Buddhist tradition.

Wherever he goes Lama Yeshe Losal tries to help people in whatever way is most useful for them. His non-judgmental nature and sunny temperament act like a magnet to people of all faiths and backgrounds.

Far away from the distractions of worldly life Holy Island was known as a spiritual place even before the 6th Century, when the Celtic Christian Saint Molaise spent a period of retreat there in a cave that has now become a place of pilgrimage. Lama Yeshe sees the island as the ideal place to establish a long term Buddhist Retreat Centre at the south end and an interfaith Centre for World Peace and Health at the north.

With his ongoing work at Samye Ling, on Holy Island, at many international Samye Dzong Centres and with other groups too numerous to mention, Lama Yeshe Losal's selfless activity bears all the hallmarks of the true Boddhisattva. May his life be long and fruitful in order that he may continue to spread the Dharma and benefit all beings according to their needs.