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An Interview with Åge Delbanco
ROAD TO KOPAN
Interviewed by Wolf Price
In the late 1960s, Åge Delbanco (also known as Babaji) followed the “hippie trail” from Denmark to India and then found his way up Kopan Hill in Nepal. He arrived about a year after Lama Yeshe, Lama Zopa Rinpoche and Zina Rachevsky had begun creating what would become Kopan Monastery. Later, he went to Vajrapani Institute in Boulder Creek, California, and ended up staying for 13 years. Wolf Price talked to Åge about the early years at Kopan and the time he spent at Vajrapani.
Wolf Price: How did you get to Kopan?
Åge Delbanco: I was in India for six months staying with a swami. My visa ran out and I aimed at going to Nepal and coming back to India. When I said goodbye to the swami he said, “Beware of Tantrics.” I didn’t think about it and I didn’t know until years later that I had come to a place full of “Tantrics” and totally fell for them.
I was staying in Boudhanath, and I saw this little hill out in the valley and it called me.
I went up there on late afternoon, after a trip. I went up and saw the sun go down and saw the old house, but I didn’t meet anybody.
Later, I met Bhagavan Das in the mountains and he said I should visit him. He told me about where he was staying and I realized that it was the little hill [Kopan] that I had visited. I went to see him but he had left, and then I met Zina [Rachevsky]. She roped me in right away. She asked what my plans were and when I was going to India.
“Oh, it is really horrible in India in the rainy season and you should stay here,” she said.
”I don’t have any money and my visa is running out,” I explained.
“I’ll help you, you can stay here. I’ll help you with money, and I’ll help you get a new visa.”
So that sounded good to me. At that time the Lamas [i.e., Lama Yeshe and Lama Zopa Rinpoche] were not there, only a few hippies and Zina. I was 44, and it was 1969.
So I moved up to Kopan. The room that Zina had told me I would get was not ready. Zina said I could stay a short while with Michael. He was a friend of Zina’s, and he was detoxing himself and doing a retreat. He was silent, but when I came to the room to stay with him, he kind of used me as his voice. He wrote little papers to me saying, “Can you tell them I don’t want potatoes?” and one thing after the other, and it kind of drove me mad. It was very different from what I had expected. But I remembered that the Buddha had said if you cannot stay with demons you will never get enlightened. I said to myself, “OK, this is not even as bad as demons,” and so I stayed. When it lasted almost a week, I went to Zina and said, “You must get me a room for myself because I can’t do this anymore.” After that, I had this wonderful room.
Then the Lamas came and it was just fantastic because they were there with us. You could talk to them whenever you needed to because there were not that many people around. Lama Zopa Rinpoche was giving teachings once a week in English but his English was not very good at that time and it was very hard to understand. It was a very literal translation without the words really hanging together, but I went anyway because I felt Zina wanted that. I had a hard time relating it to my life and it was more when Lama Yeshe started giving teachings on Sunday in English that it became clear to me that it did concern me.
How long were you at Kopan?
I was there from the summer 1970 to January 1973. The last rainy season, I was up in the mountains at Lawudo, but I had my place at Kopan.
What are some of your best memories form Kopan?
Oh, it is Lama Yeshe – he was just so amazing to be with. His kindness was boundless. At one point I lived in a room up by the kitchen and there was another room next to me with only plywood in between so all the sound came through. There was a Tibetan monk living there. One morning at 5 a.m. he started making incredible noises and I knocked on the wall. He knocked back so hard that the picture that hung on the wall fell down, and I got kind of angry even though I had convinced myself I had overcome anger. I went outside and the monk also came outside. We were standing in front of each other and it looked like it could turn to bodily harm.
Suddenly, Lama Yeshe materialized next to us and said, “Excuse me, excuse me, excuse me.”
I cried out, “Gah, what am I doing! Excuse me,” and I went back to my room.
Lama Yeshe didn’t say anything but “excuse me” and that broke it up. The monk and I realized that we had taken a wrong turn.
Lama Yeshe would be so accepting of everything. There was this English girl who came and she wanted to meditate. She sat down in her room and didn’t eat, didn’t sleep, she just sat down and meditated. I thought that was not so good, but Lama Yeshe said, “Oh meditation, very good, very good.”
I think she meditated for two weeks and then keeled over exhausted. Her father came at that time and brought her home. Later she wrote a letter to Lama, thanked him, and said it was great to go through that and not be stopped. It was always like that. I had all these ideas – Western ideas about what was good and what was bad, right and wrong. It always turned out that I didn’t know what I was believing.
How did you get your nickname Babaji from Lama Yeshe?
It was actually from Zina. I was in sadhu clothes when I first came. I was a sadhu so she always introduced me as “our babaji,” or said, “This is our babaji.” And so the Lamas called me Babaji; everyone called me Babaji.
Were you one of the first students?
I came about a year after the center had started. There was a small group that was there before me. I usually come like that: not at the very beginning of something, but a little later. I came also to Vajrapani [Insitute] a year after they started.
In Vajrapani were you Lama’s attendant?
In 1983, when he came to a rented house down in Freedom, California, for three months, I was his assistant, driver (although he liked to drive himself) and personal chef.
What did you do at Vajrapani?
I was the resident artist you could say. I was helping with building as an architect. Together with John Jackson, who was a pro builder, we designed the main building and I did a lot of the carvings and painted thangkas. When the other people built their houses, I usually helped with the architecture, too. And when we built the stupa – Lama Yeshe’s stupa – I was the director of the decoration.
How did you get in contact with Osel?
When he first came to Santa Cruz, California, he stayed with Pam and Karuna [Cayton]. He always stayed with them and he told them he wanted to drum. They knew I was a drummer so they called me up and said, “There’s a young man here who wants to drum.” They didn’t say who it was at first, but then I asked if it was Osel, and they said, “Yes.”
He came to drum with a group of my friends and afterward he came home with me. I started showing him all the pictures from the three months when I was Lama’s assistant. I think, in a way, that I made him understand how much of a hippie Lama Yeshe was himself, and understand that he could be himself and still nobody would think that he wasn’t also Lama Yeshe – if you see what I mean.
Well, do you have any other stories that come to mind?
Stories that come to mind? Hmm … [long pause]. No [laughs].
What about how you got to Asia in the first place?
I was staying with a friend in Copenhagen in and suddenly the hippie thing happened in Denmark. A lot of people from other periods of my life suddenly came into my life (new people were there. too) and they were all into going to India. They were all saying, “You must go to India.” People came back from India and said, “You must go.” I was set to go, but I was just waiting to find company that would be good to go with. That came together in ‘69 with two women with a little boy that was 10 months old and two guys that were musicians. We were a group of six and we went overland through Afghanistan, Pakistan and India. It was amazing, not very far from the time when that became impossible. In India I ended up with this swami in Delhi who had many Danish disciples. When I met Lama Yeshe, I didn’t want to go back to India. I was totally happy staying in Kopan.
Can you tell me the story of saving the baby’s life on the way to India?
He got diarrhea and he was only 10 months old and couldn’t hold in anything. He started looking really sick. I got scared. I saw him one evening and he was almost blue, so pale, and weak. I remembered I had heard that chewing the food could be helpful, so I asked his mother about me chewing his food and she said it was OK. In the morning I came in the room where he was lying and I cut a piece of bread and he started screaming. I chewed some and gave it to him, and he just stopped screaming and ate it. Then he started screaming again and I just continued feeding him. From that moment he turned around and in two days he was fine. I don’t know if I saved his life, but it did definitely turn the sickness around.
Can you tell me about the time you met His Holiness the Dalia Lama?
It was at Vajrapani. I went to several of his teaching and one time we had a short moment – just a handshake.
His Holiness came and gave teachings and I was asked to cook for him. I said, “If I cook, then I serve also.”
He was staying in the little gompa in a room there and when I came, he was standing outside talking to somebody. I didn’t know if I should come and push my way in, but he immediately noticed us and said, “Come, come.” When I served, he took so much rice, and I thought, “I hope there’s enough for everyone.” He looked up and said, “Too much?” like he had read my mind. And I said, “No, no, no. You can take as much as you want.”
The Vajrapani people came to the gompa to meet with His Holiness and ask how to best serve the Dharma. I wasn’t saying anything because I was not so much part of the organization. But when he got up to leave, he passed by me and took my hands and put his forehead to my forehead and I just felt that he could read my heart that he could see my devotion to him.
Any other stories you’d like to share?
When we were up in Lawudo, I felt I was ripe to become a monk, so I went to Lama Yeshe and asked if he would ordain me and he said, “Better wait.” [laughs] He was always very short. He would say these things and they would be so deep, so full of knowledge. I mean, he knew me better than I knew myself. He knew that it was not my moment to become a monk and he said it just so … “Better wait.” He didn’t say no or anything.
It was the same when I first came to Vajrapani. Lama Yeshe was visiting and he asked me, “What are your plans?”
“Oh, well, I’ll stay the summer here,” I replied.
“So short?” That was all that he said and it made me realize: “Of course, why would I only stay the summer?” And I stayed 13 years. It was like he knew that I should stay, and with just one word he could put things in place.
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- The Misleading Mind – Searching for Happily Ever After
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- Tulku Gyatso Remembered
- An Interview with Åge Delbanco
- Thangka Exhibition at Maitreya Instituut Amsterdam
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