Lama Yeshe’s biography tells the story of his early and carefree childhood in Tibet though he always knew he was destined to be a monk and serve his brother Akong Rinpoche who, as a reincarnated Lama, was destined to be abbot of Dolma Lhakang Monastery. Lama Yeshe didn’t exactly embrace monastic life finding it rather dull and restricting. He even thought that the escape from the monastery when the Chinese invaded Tibet would be a moment of freedom and adventure. Adventure it certainly was but not a pleasant one. Nine months of crossing the Himalayas, cold, starving, not quite knowing the way, trying to outwit the Chinese, fearing they might be betrayed was an ordeal beyond anything most of us have had to endure. Three hundred fled with Lama Yeshe and his brother but only 13 survived to arrive and find refuge in India. Even the thought of what it must have been like to lose all those companions along the way is quite horrific.
For Lama Yeshe reaching India did not satisfy his restless spirit and his ventures there and in the United States describe what some might call a loose way of living – smoking, drinking, womanising – not what one would expect from a Buddhist Abbot! His honesty in describing his rather wild life is refreshing and consoling. But then he wasn’t a Buddhist monk or abbot at that time! He did have a conversion experience brought about by dissatisfaction with his life, the love and teaching of high lamas and a rigorous programme of meditation and retreats. It was this that prepared him for life in Samye Ling and his subsequent appointment as abbot in succession to his brother Akong Rinpoche, the much loved founder of the monastery who was tragically murdered in China in 2013.
I was born the same year as Lama Yeshe and though I’ve lived a very different life I couldn’t but reflect on my own life as I thought of what I was doing when Lama Yeshe was sowing his wild oats and delving into the spiritual life through rigorous retreats and meditation. I was born in the final years of the Second Wold War so life would have been difficult though I was too young to know that. I was brought up in a Catholic community which was loving and protective, secure and comfortable but set apart from the rest of society, mainly because of the sectarianism that prevailed in Scotland at that time. We Catholics kept to ourselves. It wasn’t quite Tibet but religion and Church were at the centre of our lives and separate Catholic schools meant many of our friends were Catholic. I entered the Convent when I had finished training as a Catholic teacher so was a sister all the time Lama Yeshe was living his turbulent life. But I could resonate with a lot of what Lama Yeshe said when he talked about the process of having to face self, break out of illusions as he pursued his spiritual path. I too have been through programmes of mediation and retreats. I too have pursued a spiritual path and have found this inner journey an adventurous and exciting one with its own struggles and difficulties.
Life is an amazing adventure. How could Lama Yeshe have imagined that he would end his days in a monastery in Scotland when he was growing up in Tibet. He wouldn’t even have known such a place existed. How could I have imagined that my life would have taken me into the world of other faiths, that my path would cross with a Tibetan Abbot whom I’ve come to know as a wise and honoured friend, that I would come to feel at home in a Buddhist monastery and happily sit with Buddhist friends in meditation. Such is the exciting and wonderful result of embarking on this interfaith journey!