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Lama Says You Should Go to Kopan and He Will Take Care of You
YOUR COMMUNITY: Road to Kopan
Jacie Keeley, an American long-time student of Dharma who began her Buddhist career as a student of Ven. Geshe Sopa Rinpoche in 1975, first met Lama Yeshe and Lama Zopa Rinpoche at the now famous Yucca Valley retreat in 1977. Soon after, Jacie joined the first influx of residents to Boulder Creek, California, helping to found Vajrapani Institute. In 1978, she began traveling with the Lamas, assisting in a variety of capacities. In 1979, Lama Yeshe appointed her to be his secretary. The following year, Jacie became the director of the Central Office (the precursor to FPMT International Office) and served in both positions until 1984, when Lama died. Following Lama’s instructions, Jacie did a year Heruka Vajrasattva retreat at Kopan over Lama’s remains. In 1986, Lama Zopa Rinpoche sent Jacie to Delhi to be the director of Tushita Mahayana Meditation Centre. Later that year, she moved to Boca Raton, Florida, USA, to raise her daughter, Felicity Noel. Jacie is the founder of the Florida FPMT center, Tubten Kunga Center.
By Jacie Keeley
Over the years, a number of people have asked me what it was like to be the secretary to the fully enlightened beyond reproach, immaculately compassionate, engaged to perfection One called Lama Thubten Yeshe; to the One given the credit for paving the way and bearing the hardships in order for Dharma to spread to the West.
Others have asked what allowed me to be successful in this capacity.
Others have snickered that I must have given up my intelligence and subjugated my rights as a woman in subservience.
Each of these topics is as vast as the sky but can be summed up easily. From the moment I was born, without even knowing it, I was looking for Lama. I was hungry to be equanimously happy and ubiquitously helpful. I was longing to be Lama.
What follows is clearly about me, but it actually has less to do with me and more to do with the power of the Dharma and the immaculate perfection of Lama Yeshe who worked tirelessly criss-crossing the planet finding lost students and bringing each home to Lama’s heart. I am forever grateful to count myself in these numbers. Each of us together created the fabric of Lama’s life.
The Beginning of My Life
One of my biggest blessings is to have been born into a Christian family that practiced morality as a way of life.
I was the first-born offspring, first-born grandchild and the first-born niece on both my father’s and my mother’s side. There were a lot of hopes and expectations riding on me.
For the most part, I did not cause disappointment during my early years. From my side, however, I felt like a bobber that was stuck on a rock under water that just needed to be freed to float to the surface. I had a sense of uneasiness that could not be explained. I was quietly looking for something from the moment I was born that I did not have the words or clarity to identify. I was looking for happiness.
My parents were good providers. I grew up lacking nothing. In fact, I had more than most. Yet, even though we had much, my father was angry. Angry when little things did not go the way they should and, if he had one martini too many, life became bedlam for all of us. Very early I learned that things did not equate with happiness.
My solace was in God and Jesus. I loved church. I even had thoughts of some day being a nun living in quiet devotion. The problem, however, was the whole God concept began to have holes for me as early as age eight. It made no sense to me at all that a God who was “all love” could punish my dog by allowing her to be hit by a car. I had this visualization of her body flying through the air and her inner being flying somewhere, but I did not know where, and it was all so painful and horrendous that I cried and rolled on the floor in hysteria, literally for hours and hours and hours, because none of this made sense. I was less concerned about the physical pain she may have suffered and more tormented by her mental confusion of abandonment and lack of protection and basic disorientation.
Then, when I was 13, my mother threw an extra special birthday party for me. A boy gave me a present and a note that made it obvious he had more than friend feelings for me. He had a crush on me, emotions I could not reciprocate. I hid in the bathroom for most of the night, again, in tears because it was not fair that people could be so vulnerable and feelings could be so easily hurt.
Life was just not making sense and it was all way too unbearably painful. Where was happiness? The words were beginning to form and my search was beginning to take a focus.
Then, I turned 16 and had red colored hair, white colored skin and freckles everywhere. Having not attended the same middle school as most everyone else, I knew very few people well. I had no circle of friends. My sense of naturally occurring teenage awkwardness was high.
At this time I walked into a party acutely aware of “myself.” Something remarkable occurred. I had a startling inner response. All of a great sudden, I saw everyone in the room through their own eyes and everyone in the room appeared even more uncomfortable than me. A rush of emotion overcame me. A prayer awoke in my heart to be the cause of the end to this universal teenage discomfort. Further surveillance of my interior revealed my own self-consciousness and awkwardness vanishing with this thought replacing it. I quickly attributed this success to my strong reliance on God. I decided I was, in fact, the happiest person I knew because I had God in my heart, and so even when I was unhappy, I was the happiest unhappy person I knew because I had a secret and that secret was God, and with reliance on God, all was well. We just had to be one with that reliance and wellness would follow.
From that moment on, my life was profoundly changed. From a rather mediocre student, I became a star. From a previously inconsequential personality, I had a mission, a mission to touch and impact as many high school lives as humanly possible. (Little did I know, then, that life did not get easier as one got older.)
I had school mates who did not know where they were going or what they were doing with their lives or did not think they could do impossible things. They were listless with no wind in their sails. That was painful for me.
Consequently, I became involved with as many clubs as possible. I particularly loved a failing club. I brought in members. Everyone needs fraternity and a cause, so my cause was to give them cause.
I started a mentoring program at the neighboring middle school so high schoolers with free time could go over to read and work with the little ones. I saw passions erupt and missions evolve in a number of these friends as they discovered the teacher within themselves and the joy of helping others.
I learned the value of making teachers feel they were communicating and being effective. When I finally made it through my 16th year into my 17th and 18th, I felt a great sense of accomplishment that I got out of childhood alive. Another prayer awoke in my heart. I pledged to return one day to help others as they traversed those difficult teenage years. I felt amazed but affirmed when my entire senior class voted me as the girl with the best personality. This had nothing to do with me independent of my passionate thoughts to make everyone feel better about their own lives.
Although I had a strong personal connection with what I assumed was God, the holes in the concept kept getting bigger. How does one, “Honor thy mother and father,” when they are in your face? The idea is a good one, but how in the heck do you do it? If these teachings lead to a peace that passes all understanding, why could I not find perfect living examples? I had no problem with the priests I knew, but they did not seem better off than me. I wanted the pudding. I wanted to see the end result and learn precisely how to get there. I wanted to have perfect happiness. I wanted to have this, but I could not figure out where it came from. What was the source?
I was sure I would find the answers to my heart search in psychology, but I was seriously let down when I got to college. Instead of finding answers, I found more guess work. There were lots and lots of theories, but none leading to the perfect pudding.
But I did find a mentor. I changed my major to political science. Under the tutelage of Mr. Pike, I studied political theory through literature and had began my quest from a different perspective when something remarkable happened.
My boyfriend and I went to the airport to meet his sister but we accidentally went to the wrong concourse. We ended up at the gate where Guru Maharaji was disembarking. Both sides of the hallway were lined with devotees dressed in white carrying flowers, paying homage and making supplication. My heart was touched forever. A little light began to glow. I went right back to Mr. Pike with my inner report. I said I wanted to pursue whatever it was that I found happening back there. Mr. Pike said I was free to do that but had to understand I would need to sacrifice my intelligence. Somehow, that did not scare me at all. I mean, I tried everything I was told to do by my parents. Then, I tried everything the billboards and advertising told me to do. I tried everything the news media reported young people were doing. I tried it all, but where was the happiness?
I did a daring thing and quit graduate school and began 20 years of independent study. I worked in a factory. I waitressed. I was a chamber maid, a hotel manager, a ticket agent for an airline, a checker at a grocery store and, finally, I decided happiness must lie in self-sufficiency. After all, if you lived in a high rise in New York and it was hit by a bomb, what would be the chance of even surviving let alone being happy? Self-sufficiency must be the source of happiness.
So my Borzoi dog, the man I lived with, Rick, and myself became self-sufficient farmers on the desert in Idaho. If we could not grow it, we did not eat if. If I could not make it, we did not wear it. We had no electricity or running water. We lived miles from our nearest neighbor. We had to ski in during the winter. It should have been perfect but I was still me. I could not get away from me. I could change my location. I could change my lifestyle. I could be vegan and organic and a hippie but I was still me inside. My happiness now just depended on different circumstances – did the mice come out at night and eat holes in our bags of grains or not?
Then, something remarkable happened. A friend asked Rick and me to come to her house to meet a dear friend who was visiting. She had a feeling it was important which is, in hindsight, a bold understatement.
That night, we met Merideth Hasson, Dick Robinson and Chuck Thomas who were heading back to California after having been to Indiana to see Lama Yeshe and Lama Zopa Rinpoche. At this point, I was a staunch Christian by default. I had gone through agnosticism to atheism to New Age spirituality and back because nothing else seemed to lead me to my goal of finding the pudding. But this encounter moved me. Moved me like when I met Guru Majaraji, but deeper-deeper-deeper-in-the-heart moved. It inexplicably moved me. I liked the pictures of Lama Yeshe and Lama Zopa but I loved the pictures of Yangsi Rinpoche and the story of him. I could not take my eyes or attention off of either.
Merideth and friends told us about a meditation retreat in Santa Barbara that December, 1975. Lama Yeshe requested Geshe Sopa to give his first formal Buddhist teachings in America although Geshe-la had lived relatively under-noticed in America for more than a decade.
Frankly, I was scared. The only book we had was the Jewel Ornament of Liberation, a daunting introductory read which is what we did as we drove from Idaho through California. It was like unraveling a fantastical mystery until we got to the chapter on the hell realms. I literally shook with each word I read. Finally, I put the book on the dashboard, turned to Rick and announced I wanted to go home. This was not jiving with the way I had thought things would work out and I did not like it and I did not want to be party to it and TAKE ME HOME! But it was too late. I was embarking on what was soon to be known as the worst week of my life. Absolutely everything I had conjured up into my own personal belief system was challenged. After all, I was 25 and I thought I knew everything.
I mean, suffering is something that happens on the other side of the planet, not in the life of a girl like me raised by upper middle class Episcopal Republicans from the suburbs of Chicago. But I finally had that ah-ha moment. Finally, I got it. Every time my father had one martini too many and lost his temper over something insignificant only to be remorseful the next day, that was suffering. My heart broke as suffering became apparent to me, hiding in places glossed over by a thin veneer of excuses.
But the hell realms? This was way too much. I asked Geshe Sopa, “What about the hell realms?” In return, very kindly, Geshe-la asked me, “Can you imagine hell on earth?” Yes, I could. “Well, then, work with that, but do not close your mind to the possibility that a whole realm exists where there is nothing but the suffering of hell.” That was fair. I could do that: work with what I understood and hold judgment on the rest.
But what about God? I mean, I had spent years poking holes in the theory only to re-subscribe due to no satisfactory alternative. And it really did require subscription. I had signed on the bottom line. I was a believer, by god! “God the creator?” Geshe-la queried when I posed the important question, “We reject.”
Talk about a hell realm. I fell into one with that simple response. If he rejected God the Creator and I subscribed to God the Creator, then, did he reject me?
“But, if you mean god-like qualities of kindness and compassion and love and patience and generosity and all perfections to which we can aspire, we agree,” continued Geshe-la. Phew. I could work with that.
But these prostrations? What about them? I am going to put my head on the dirty floor? “No, you are going to develop humility and purify your negative imprints.” Well, okay, I will give it a try and a complete wave of appreciation and a true sense of order flooded through me with each prostration.
But the singularly most impactful experience of the whole week was the experience of Geshe-la himself. While I wriggled and fidgeted and counted the days, hours and minutes before I could get out of that place, Geshe-la sat at the front of the room with a peaceful body using gentle speech and cast a loving gaze which I figured had to come from a peaceful mind. The difference between Geshe-la and me was so painfully apparent to me. Did I taste the pudding?
We returned to Idaho. I made two commitments: first, I made a personal promise to give the stabilizing meditation a trial run. I agreed to myself to do the practice for 20 minutes a day for 365 days. Second, I agreed to myself to test out the limited amount of information my closed-minded, upside-down tea cup could take in during that week in order to try and put holes in it at which time I could forget it. You see, if I could not find fault with it, I was going to have to make some changes, and I did not want to do that. Remember, I was 25 and I knew it all.
No holes were to be found. The information I had to test was watertight.
Then, a most remarkable thing occurred. On the 365th day of my practice with the stabilizing meditation, life offered me a test. I was thrown into a highly stressful situation complicated by a personal upheaval, physical challenges and having had only a beer and chocolate bar for lunch.
Normally, my heart would have beaten a mile a minute, my voice would have become high and squeaky, I would have been shaking inside and out and I would have said and done things I later wished I had not. But that did not happen this time. Three hundred sixty-five days after my feeble attempt at stabilizing the mind, I breathed. That is all I did is breathe. No discursive dialog. No out of control reaction. Just breathing. Just breathing. Just calm and peace and breath. My mental spy took one look at what occurred and rejoiced. My body and mind were filled with rapture. This stuff worked. It worked. It passed the test. I had to know more. I was ready to make those changes I previously dreaded. My hunger for the pudding was massively wild.
As luck would have it, the next event was the now famous month-long retreat at Yucca Valley. Where I had been scared to attend the week-long retreat in 1975, nothing could have kept me from this month-long retreat in 1977. Nothing!
The Lama Who Brought me Home
Life was never to be the same. I watched this little dough ball of a man called Lama Yeshe toddle into the large packed conference room, climb to the throne looking dull and grey and pudgy, close his eyes, go into some kind of meditation or trance and evolve into an enormous golden radiant all-knowing perfect light being. How remarkable. How very remarkable!
I found my home in the tonglen meditation. Nothing was more silky gorgeous than to imagine being able to breathe in the suffering of others and to exhale bringing them perfect comfort and joy. In fact, one of the retreatants had a terribly disruptive cough which became the object of my practice, to gladly take on his cough so he could be calm and able to hear the teachings.
How odd indeed it was that the next day, his cough was gone while I was coughing so badly I had to run from the lecture hall in order not to disturb others. So outside I sat in amazement wondering if it was just coincidence or the power of the practice when someone appeared with the beverage from Lama’s side table and instructions to drink so I could return to the teachings.
Tonglen was my familiar home and precepts were my candy. I loved the intense way they allowed me to watch myself and take corrective measures with my thoughts and actions. The deal was being sealed. I could see happiness was in Lama Yeshe.
As the story goes, Vajrapani Institute was born from this retreat. After Yucca Valley, Lama went to Boulder Creek to see the proffered land. Rick and I were there the very first time Lama put his foot on Vajrapani-land soil. I knew already Lama was my teacher. I knew already Lama was my path. However, I also knew there could possibly be cultural differences that I did not want to get in the way of a perfect relationship. That awareness was tested with the ascent up the Vajrapani hill.
Lama, only a step in front of me, discarded a piece of paper on the ground. My mental spy rejoiced as not a single discursive thought arose in my environmentalist mind. I merely swooped down, picked up the paper and kept going without missing a beat. Already I was determined not to let my way of thinking interfere with my apprenticeship with Lama’s way of thinking.
Idaho became history. Vajrapani became home as we joined the ranks of the first settlers. It was a strained adjustment, living on the ground with only a piece of plastic over us for six months while building our home and cooking over a camp fire while struggling, unsuccessfully, with seeing the emptiness in everything. The reward came in spring when Lama returned to teach at the University of California at Santa Cruz.
It was a remarkable experience. When Lama entered the room, without understanding how or why, the whole student body would stand. Lama would lightly skip down the aisle to the podium area, circle the desk, stand up on the chair, jump over to the desk top, sit on top of it and proceed to blow everyone away. I wore the darkest glasses I had to mask the tears that uncontrollably streamed from my eyes during every single class session.
I had found my pudding. Lama Yeshe was the end result of an obviously perfect recipe. No more guessing. No more hypothesizing. For the first time in my entire life I knew what I wanted to be when I grew up. I wanted to be Lama. To be Lama, to me, meant my mind would be of the same taste as that of Lama Yeshe. To be Lama Yeshe, to me, meant that, when I opened my mouth, my words would be like a salve on the wounds of those listening as was Lama Yeshe’s. To be Lama Yeshe, to me, meant that my body would engage in activities always centered on leading others, no matter how dense or coarse they were or how small the movement, to the final result of union with the mind of clear light skies called Lama Yeshe.
To be Lama Yeshe, to have the mind of the same taste as Lama Yeshe, I knew I had to give up thinking the thoughts that resulted in conclusions other than the conclusions that Lama Yeshe would reach. There had to be total integration. But what to do next?
Everyone seemed to be making an appointment with Lama so I asked for an appointment. How disappointing it was. I met with Lama and talked gibberish. I did not mean to talk gibberish, but it was. My words represented transitory thoughts of transitory moments even though I was seeking profound results. I said to myself never again. I needed to make my relationship with Lama more meaningful. I needed a relationship that surpassed stupid words coming from stupid thoughts. I needed a new approach.
I knew with huge certainty that Lama was the method for me to achieve my goals so the next time I went to Lama with a mandala made of fruit. I am sure it was most highly ridiculous as the pieces kept rolling off the plate but, to me, it was meaningful and fashioned, albeit precariously, with great care and thought. Its presentation represented the universe, and I had a part I wanted to play in it. I wanted to be 100-percent-forever-moment-to-moment-without-ceasing-or-pausing beneficial to others just as I saw Lama to be. Enlightenment mattered nothing to me except that it was the word that conventionally summed up where I had to be in order to do what my heart wanted to do with a yearning that was inconsolable.
When I presented the fruity mandala to Lama, I beseeched, I implored, I begged with my words but more with my heart for Lama to be my teacher, my guide, the means and the method to lead me down the path to perfect bodhichitta and beyond to sublime enlightenment. In return, I pledged to do whatever Lama needed or wanted in order to help smooth the path and make the way for Lama to meet the greatest amount of people possible in the easiest most expeditious manner so that his full effort could be directed towards his true charm of hooking and helping the hopeless and helpless like me. From my side, this was a sensible proposal of strengths meeting. To my sincere delight and relief, Lama agreed. In my mind’s eye, I fully expected to be scrubbing floors in a Dharma center somewhere.
I got pregnant. I felt the consciousness enter through the top of my head. I was sure and it had happened, but this was not good news for me. In fact, it was a huge wake up call. In my mind, getting pregnant and having a baby and being a mother was like a final exam of my life. If I had lived it well and I was free of hatred, free of ignorance and free of greed, I would be successful. I would be a teacher and I could raise my offspring accordingly. I was certainly most very definitely not ready. I was distraught to put it mildly.
Then, something remarkable happened. We went on a hike above Vajrapani. At one particular point on the path, we stopped to rest and enjoy the amazing vast beautiful view. I reached up to a tree branch for support while I caught my breath and, at the moment, felt the being inside me leave from my side with a woosh. I was sure of this and I had a reprieve and I made a deep internal pledge that I would be a mother one day if I was really ready, but now was not that time.
I was now filled with a stronger sense of urgency than ever. There was no time to waste. I had to concentrate on developing all the magnificent Lama Yeshe qualities for which I longed.
What Can I Do?
So, enthusiastically, I headed for the first Deer Park celebration in Madison, Wisconsin. All the great lamas of the time were there. It was awesome, but I could not even hear the teachings let along understand them. I was so disappointed. Those were the days when most of the teachings were in Tibetan. Sometimes, the lama would talk for up to half an hour or longer in Tibetan on some incredibly complex topic followed by a synopsis in English. I felt like I was truly taking up space and, unfortunately, wasting my time by just not getting it. So I thought hard. What could I do?
Well, I thought, if someone is not in the kitchen making the Christmas dinner, no one can enjoy the party, so, maybe, there would be some behind-the-scenes way I could help. I approached Peter Kedge, Lama and Rinpoche’s secretary, who very gladly accepted my offer to be of assistance. In fact, Peter was so delighted to have help, when it was time for the tour to move onto Europe, he suggested, perhaps, I might like to go.
I did some deep soul searching and sincere checking of my motivation. Then, I called my mother. She had an appointment for our once-every-four-year family portrait scheduled for two weeks from then. I told her I was leaving for Europe. Could she move the appointment up a week? Then, I called Rick who I had lived with for six years and who was still at Vajrapani and asked if he would not mind coming to Wisconsin to get our car. Not only did he do that, but he gave me every penny we owned. And then I left America.
I happily joined the European tour of Lama Yeshe, Lama Zopa Rinpoche and His Holiness Zong Rinpoche performing any sundry tasks, whatever needed to be done, whenever it needed to be done. Anything I could do to live up to the promise I made to Lama Yeshe when I made my fruity mandala request.
At one point, doubts arose. I kept late hours, did grunt work, could not attend teachings and was not part of the “in” crowd. I wondered if my time was well invested. One particularly cold, dark, dreary English night, when these concerns were weighing on my mind, Tenzin Wangchuk, attendant to His Holiness Zong Rinpoche, appeared at my desk where I was typing. He came asking for stamps and once I had put them in his hand, he said, “Jacie, what you are doing now by serving the lamas is the most important thing you can be doing. You are planting the seeds and creating the cause for enlightenment to arise. Just keep serving the lamas with great dedication. You will see the fruits.” My mouth dropped open. Tears sprang to my eyes. All my concerns were abated as Tenzin Wangchuk disappeared into the night as stealthily as he arrived.
More and more as the tour went on, the vision Lama Yeshe embraced for an alternate world community became my own heart. There was much discussion amongst the students over the long and drawn out name Lama had given to his worldwide activities: The Foundation for the Preservation of the Mahayana Tradition. Many had doubts it was catchy enough, but Lama said it perfectly described what we were doing, so those words became the object of my meditation. I found a dictionary and read the definition of each and every word. Then, I read the definition of each and every word in the definition of each and every word until I got it. Indeed, we were creating a strong foundation as one would do if one were building a massive complex, a foundation that would support the activity of preserving the Mahayana tradition with the emphasis being on preservation. And the only real way to preserve the tradition is in the mind. My devotion grew exponentially.
By the time we got to Spain, I was out of money. I had sponsored myself the whole tour. By whatever means the lamas traveled, so did I. Wherever the Lamas stayed, so did I. I wanted to make sure I was always available if help was needed, but the result was that I used up all the money Rick had given me. I had just enough for a one-way ticket to India or I could stay in Spain and work.
The Road to Kopan
One day, I was sitting on my bed with my altar (which was composed of a line drawing of Tara that I cut out of a center’s program). I was praying and praying and praying to know what the best thing was for me to do when Peter walked in. “Oh, by the way,” he remarked, “Lama says you should go to Kopan and he will take care of you.”
We departed for Delhi from London, just Lama and me. Lama was in business class. I was in the back of the plane. Lama summoned me on a number of occasions to interrogate me about everything. True to the lesson I learned back in Santa Cruz, I spoke only when spoken to without exception and without expectation. At one point, when Lama was probing my Christian past, I told Lama what I missed as a Buddhist was talking to God. Lama’s ever so kind and re-assuring response? “Just keep talking, dear.”
My first time traveling to Delhi was with Lama Yeshe. We stayed at Lama’s sister’s hotel waiting for Lama Zopa Rinpoche to arrive from Europe. From there, Lama went to Dharmasala to give his report to His Holiness the Dalai Lama. Lama asked me to take Rinpoche to Kopan.
The irony is that I was nobody’s escort. It was the Lamas who escorted me.
Not only were the lamas my guides on the path to perfection but also my temporal guides and escorts in these unknown places.
I had only heard of Nepal once in my life before meeting the Lamas. I certainly had never heard of Tibet. I had never researched the countries or the people or religions nor had I any curiosity about them whatsoever.
My connection was solely this need deep within me to find answers to my fundamental driving questions about where happiness came from and how to become a living perfect remedy to the confusion I saw in the world.
Lama Yeshe was the holder of the key that would unlock all these secrets. For Lama, I would do anything. Most especially (and easily) offer my life.
So that is the path that took me to Kopan where the most remarkable things were yet to come!
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Mandala Publications is the official publication of the Foundation for the Preservation of the Mahayana Tradition (FPMT), an international charitable organization founded by two Tibetan Buddhist masters, Lama Thubten Yeshe (1935-1984) and Lama Thubten Zopa Rinpoche. FPMT is a vibrant international community, with a network of 160 affiliate centers, projects and services, and members in more than 30 countries.
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