Big Love, the long-anticipated authorized biography of Lama Yeshe written by Adele Hulse, provides an intimate portrait of FPMT’s founder. This excerpt is taken from the chapter chronicling the purchase of Nowrojee Kotee, renamed Tushita Retreat Centre, and now Tushita Meditation Centre in Dharamsala, India.
Lama Yeshe buys his guru’s old house in Dharamsala
Back in March , Lama Yeshe had left the meditation course at Kopan suddenly to go to Dharamsala to take teachings from Trijang Rinpoche. While in Dharamsala that time, he also bought a house. When he left Nepal, Lama had flown to Delhi with Jhampa Zangpo where they took rooms in a hotel close to the airport. “Lama was carrying $5,000 in American banknotes, donated by Piero Cerri,” said Jhampa. “We went to see the money-changers, who told us to meet them on the street outside the hotel. A taxi pulled up and we got in and drove down the street a bit. The money-changers gave me a wad of rupees and I gave them a wad of dollars and we started counting. Lama was muttering mantras and laughing, being his usual self, as I counted this huge pile of rupees. Eventually, I finished and they drove off, leaving us on the street six blocks from the hotel with all this money. “The next morning we took a taxi to the bus depot, and after a long hard bus ride to Dharamsala, we went straight to Nowrojee Villa, or Nowrojee Kotee, as the house was called,” said Jhampa Zangpo.
The four-acre property had previously been the temporary home of Kyabje Trijang Rinpoche after the Indian government had allowed the Tibetan government-in-exile to move from Mussoorie to Dharamsala starting in May 1960. Just below Nowrojee Kotee was a building known as the Old Palace, where His Holiness the Dalai Lama had stayed while his permanent residence was being built. Geshe Rabten had also stayed in a small house close by and Kyabje Ling Rinpoche’s house was just a few hundred yards away on the other side of the hill.
Lama could think of nothing more wonderful than buying his guru’s old house.
“Oh Lord, what a run-down old house!” thought Max [Mathews] when he brought her there for the first time. “But Lama just loved the place, which was on a good piece of land. He brought his own lawyer up from Delhi and negotiated the whole deal himself,” said Max.
The house was owned by an old Parsee family, the Nowrojees, who owned and ran the general store beside the bus stop in McLeod Ganj. Mrs. Nowrojee was a consummate businesswoman and the deal did not come cheap. Lama registered the new owner of the house as His Holiness the Dalai Lama, as no entity yet existed to hold the property and Lama did not wish to have it in his own name.
When the Dalai Lama first arrived in Dharamsala, his new home, in late April 1960, it was an abandoned British hill station. Dharamsala is located one day’s travel north of Delhi in the northern verges of the Punjab. It is spread among the hills of the Dhauladhar Range, which serves to fence in the Kangra Valley. Under British rule, a military cantonment had originally been established there, followed by the small town of McLeod Ganj, created on a thin ridge facing the plains below, and later surrounded by numerous bungalows occupied by British families during the vacation seasons.
In the dry seasons of the year the forest floors are covered with primrose, mistletoe, and rhododendron, and these are joined, once the monsoon rains begin, by a flood of buttercups, violets, and honeysuckle. Roaming through the forests and hills are panthers, leopards, foxes, jackals, bears, and several kinds of monkeys, while hawks and vultures, pigeons, ravens, and pheasants swoop through the trees at lower altitudes.
After Indian independence and the departure of the British from this once-thriving hill station, only the family of N. N. Nowrojee remained. Long regarded as something like the “guardian spirits” of McLeod Ganj, the Nowrojees are Parsees, having come to India originally as refugees themselves in order to escape persecution in Persia. During the British Raj and afterward, they had been the proprietors of Nowrojee and Sons, the “Europe Store” selling general merchandise to the community, for more than five generations. Entrusted by default after 1947 with caring for the community of abandoned bungalows in which they lived, this family was largely responsible, together with the Indian government, for making it possible for the Tibetans, the Dalai Lama, and the Tibetan government-in-exile to come to Dharamsala and take up residence in 1960.
Piero, Claudio [Cipullo], Massimo [Corona], Carol [Corona], and some other students were already staying at Nowrojee Kotee, which had been renamed Tushita Retreat Centre, when Lama arrived to fill the silent, pine-scented nights with his glorious laughter. Grabbing one student by the arm, he led him round the property and described what he intended to build and where: retreat houses here and here … a stupa over there…. He declared that many people would come there to meditate, transform their minds, and eventually be of benefit to all sentient beings.
“The front room is perfect for meditation,” said Lama Yeshe. “You need an expansive view for that. We can make some heavy dark curtains so there is no distraction.” He wanted his students to have a different kind of expansive view. There was also a big room that had been Trijang Rinpoche’s own room. Lama took that for himself.
Around this time Lama Yeshe gave Massimo and Carol a private Vajrasattva initiation at Tushita. “He had given it to us before,” said Massimo, “but this time it felt so strong and powerful. We were in Lama’s big room and he placed tormas1 on our heads as we sat in silence with our eyes closed. Then he said, ‘Okay, now think, Massimo, Massimo, where is Massimo? Just think deeply and when you feel “Massimo” is there in your mind, just check that.’ He said it very slowly, with a lot of pauses. I had heard this kind of thing before, but this time, when he said, ‘Okay, this “Massimo” that you see – it is nothing!’ suddenly I felt that what I’d always thought was ‘me’ was now gone. I experienced a real emptiness.”
1. Tormas are ritual offering cakes used in tantric practices, which are often cone- or pyramid-shaped and decorated in a variety of ways. They are generally made of roasted barley flour and butter, and are kneaded and molded, though not baked.