A few days ago I received a visit from a friend I had not seen in nearly a dozen years. He was one of Lama Yeshe’s earliest disciples and perhaps the first ordained Westerner I met during my stay in India and Nepal in the early 1970s. Seeing him again after such a long time brought back many memories of the good old days, and we spent a pleasant lunch together trading snippets of gossip and bringing each other up to date about the people we had been friendly with in Dharamsala and Kopan so many years ago.
This recent meeting brought to mind a conversation we had twenty-three years previously, a conversation which he did not remember at all but which had a profound effect on me not only at that time but during my subsequent Dharma career as well. I had been studying with Geshe Ngawang Dhargyey, first in Dalhousie and then at the Library in Dharamsala, for nearly three years when I paid my first visit to Nepal in 1973 to attend the Fifth Meditation Course at Kopan. My intention was to spend as much of that four-week course as possible in silence, using this precious opportunity to meditate on the vast amount of Dharma information I had been so fortunate to receive from Gen Rinpoche while in India. But my plan to observe strict silence for a month was shattered before it could even begin…and by no one other than Lama Yeshe himself.
As soon as I arrived at Kopan I requested a short meeting with Lama so I could present him with a newly prepared manuscript of teachings by Lama’s guru, Geshe Rabten, which a friend in Dharamsala had asked me to hand deliver. During that meeting, Lama Yeshe―whom I had met briefly only twice before―startled me by making an offer I could not refuse: Would I be one of four “senior” students leading discussion groups and answering questions for new students during the upcoming course? In addition to scuttling my plans to avoid all social contact for a month, this request, which I took as a command, presented a major problem for me: How could I answer others’ questions when I had so many of my own and so little meditational experience to draw from? Lama Yeshe dismissed my pleas of inadequacy by saying that, as a student of Geshe Dhargyey’s lam-rim (graded path) teachings for so long, I would certainly be of great assistance to Dharma newcomers (he might have even called them “Dharma babies”). And so, despite my objections, I became one of four discussion group leaders for the course, and the friend who recently visited me was appointed one of the other three.
(I should add that even though one part of my mind felt overwhelmed and even disappointed by Lama’s request, another part was extremely pleased to be of some service to the guru; and this was not the only time in my thirteen-year association with Lama that something he said split my mind in two. The only advice that I could follow in such instances was that given by Hamlet to his mother; when she complained, “O Hamlet, thou has cleft my heart in twain,” the melancholy Prince replied, “Oh, throw away the worser part of it,/ And live the purer with the other half.” And you, dear reader, did you think you’d get through an entire column of mine without at least one pedantic reference to the classics?)
As the course was about to begin, I pulled my friend aside and told him I foresaw a problem being discussion group leader. “What is that?” he asked. “I know that a major topic of Lama Zopa Rinpoche’s teachings will be on beginningless mind,” I told him, “and I don’t think I can discuss that properly with the new students.” “Why not?” he asked, and I answered simply, “Because I don’t believe in it.” And it was true. For nearly three years I had been listening to and taking copious notes on the lam-rim but I could never take the teachings on rebirth, the continuity of consciousness or beginningless mind seriously. They had so little meaning for me, in fact, that I often stopped taking notes when rebirth was the subject matter. The only way I could relate to these particular teachings was to regard them as a metaphor for something else, whatever that something else might be. But there was no way that I could take the teachings on rebirth literally; to me, believing that something survives death was just another religious superstition, and for me the attraction of Buddhism was that―other than its insistence upon the truth of rebirth―it seemed so reasonable, psychologically sound and free of superstition.
My friend’s response was to look me directly in the eye and, in an unusually stern tone of voice (for he was, and remains, one of the mildest of men) demand, “Then you must check up on what you do believe!” That was all. No arguments pro or con; no accusations of heresy; no suggestion that I repeat the party line whether or not I believed in it. Simply, if I don’t believe in rebirth, then what do I believe in? And I suddenly realized that I not only had no clear idea at all about what happened at the time of death, I did not even have a clear idea what my beliefs were based on or from what authority I had received them. I had assumed that my disbelief in rebirth was scientifically based, but the more I checked up the more it appeared that what I called “scientific” had nothing to do with a true scientific attitude (that is, an attitude based on unbiased study and research) but was itself steeped in materialistic superstition, a blanket rejection as unimportant of any reality not measurable by physical instruments.
It was on the basis of this brief interchange that I began a serious consideration of questions that I had either dismissed as irrelevant or had never considered at all. What beliefs did I hold, especially about such life-and-death issues as life and death? What were these beliefs based on? What authorities held similar beliefs, and how reliable were they? (One thing I ran into again and again was that the word “mind” means virtually nothing in the vocabulary of many so-called scientific investigators. Such authorities seem particularly ill-equipped to comment meaningfully upon sutra arguments concerning beginningless mind or tantric descriptions of the various levels of mind.) While these and similar lines of questioning did not immediately transform me into a proponent of rebirth, they did force me to examine certain important issues that not only myself but a sizable portion of other “educated” Westerners had been studiously avoiding. And all this because a friend challenged me to “check up!” For this I thank him.