From a mountain in Tibet by Lama Yeshe Losal Rinpoche
Book Review by Alice Maxwell
Many Arran folk will have come across the charismatic Lama Yeshe, the managing director of Holy Isle. He is perhaps best known for his good humour and positivity, and for his conviction that happiness only comes through serving others.
As he approached his 78th year, Lama Yeshe was persuaded to write his life story which is aptly described on the Amazon website: Written with erudition and humour, From a Mountain in Tibet shines a light on how the most desperate of situations can help us to uncover vital life lessons and attain lasting peace and contentment.
The book can be enjoyed from many viewpoints. It is a historical narrative, covering Lama Yeshe’s life before, during and after the Chinese invasion of Tibet in 1959 and describing the plight of Tibetan refugees.
It is a story of family disconnection and ultimate reconciliation. Lama Yeshe spent the first half of his life rebelling against his austere older brother, Akong Rinpoche. (Akong visited Holy Isle many times and his life was featured in the film A Remarkable Life, shown in Lamlash school a few years ago.) Akong showed remarkable patience and kindness towards his arrogant, wayward brother which at first Lama Yeshe completely took for granted. However, after many years Lama vowed to give up his selfish ways and make his brother proud.
Lama Yeshe’s eventual personal transformation is dramatic and inspires readers that we all have the power to change our minds for the better should we wish to. Up to the age of thirty nine he was a wild and crazy character which makes amusing reading – he frequented gambling dens, sped about in fast cars (and crashed a good many of them), drank copious quantities of whisky (though he never touched drugs) and was known by his fellow countrymen as The Worst type of Tibetan. Gradually, through the example and blessing of his ever patient brother Akong, he came to see that selfishness does not engender happiness, and he finally ordained as a monk and vowed to devote the rest of his life to the service of others.
Interspersed with his extraordinary story are wonderful snippets of Buddhist teaching. These are certainly not designed to convert the reader to Buddhism, but are gems of wisdom offered to help the reader to cope with the fragility of our fast- changing world. They inspire us to engage wholeheartedly with the fundamental goodness that lies within us.
The book begins: My earliest memory is of playing with my friends. Our game was killing birds. This is a shocking start to an autobiography of a Tibetan Buddhist, since a fundamental Buddhist precept is not to kill. Yet boys will be boys, and their excitement was heightened by the thrill of disobeying their parents and transgressing the rules of their religion. This rebellious nature was certainly a hallmark of much of Lama Yeshe’s life.
Lama Yeshe’s childhood is a fascinating glimpse into a medieval world – cars and trains were unheard of, their only clock was the sun, nature sustained them, and they respected nature in return. It was a subsistence economy where we ate what we grew, used firewood as fuel and made our own clothes and blankets out of animal hairs and skins. Families were mutually dependent on each other and Buddhism was at the heart of their existence. Everyone had a role to play in society, which was built on simplicity and love.
The Buddha encouraged his disciples to contemplate impermanence – although the circumstances of our lives may appear stable and unchanging, they are not. If we do not mentally prepare ourselves for inevitable change we will suffer immensely as a result. Unfortunately the young Lama Yeshe’s rebellious mind prevented him from absorbing the Buddhist teachings, so he was ill-equipped to deal with the traumatic changes that were about to befall him and his people.
Lama Yeshe’s blissful childhood came to an abrupt end when he was ordered to join Akong’s monastery where he had no choice but to undergo gruelling study. He resented his loss of freedom, he resented Akong, and he revelled in self-pity. But this was nothing compared to what was to come.
The description of the nine- month escape from the Chinese communist invaders is both nail biting and heart breaking – from the warmth of our well-fed existences it is impossible to imagine a journey of such terrifying magnitude. Tibetan refugees were flooding into India at the time, so Lama Yeshe’s experience was shared with thousands of others. They feared being shot dead by Chinese soldiers or being captured and tortured. Traumatised survivors watched helplessly as thousands died from starvation, cold and exhaustion. Lama Yeshe left Kham in Eastern Tibet with a group of three hundred people. Only thirteen made it to the safety of India. His idyllic life had literally been smashed to pieces.
The refugee camps in India were squalid, and lacked adequate drinking water. We were completely vulnerable to diseases such as measles and tuberculosis that were unknown in our country and which spread like wildfire. Like many others, Lama Yeshe contracted dysentery – and later a severe bout of Tuberculosis. During this time Lama Yeshe’s brother Akong left India for the UK, with his close friend Chogyam Trungpa. Both were highly respected Buddhist teachers (lamas) and together they established the Samye Ling Tibetan Centre, in Eskdalemuir, Dumfriesshire.
Lama Yeshe remained in India and Sikkim, living amongst the refugees. He was lost and lonely, unable to come to terms with the tragic loss of his country and had no idea what to do with his life. He loved Hindi films and experienced first- hand the addictive pull of material things and the trap of self-indulgence. He discovered that young people in the West were rejecting the old ways and exploring alternative life-styles, values, politics and spirituality and in 1969 he persuaded Akong to send him the money for an air ticket to Scotland.
Samye Ling at that time was cold, damp and ramshackle. Trungpa taught meditation to the handful of “smelly hippies” who lived there, while Akong was a caretaker, ordering food, and mending clothes. There was no money for luxuries and the food consisted mostly of brown rice and raw vegetables. This was not at all the glamourous Western life that Lama Yeshe had anticipated. He continued to ignore the Buddhist teachings given by Trungpa, and did little to help in the running of the centre. He was disconnected, adrift and increasingly unhappy.
During this time Akong married a young Tibetan called Yangchen. The couple moved to Dumfries where they ran a BnB and brought up a family. A local builder, David Robison and his wife Eta befriended them and were devoted to Akong his family. David took Lama Yeshe on a fishing trip to Orkney where our wayward Tibetan once again broke Buddhist precepts and caught fish after fish. When Akong saw photographs of the dead fish he was devastated. With tears in his eyes he said to his brother, “I promised our parents that I would take care of you and raise you with Buddhist values….. I have protected you from .. suffering. But now I feel like a failure. I have let our parents down”.
Lama Yeshe had never seen his brother so upset. Akong had a rock-like stability and to see him in tears caused Lama’s heart to break. He made a vow there and then to move from negative thinking and action to a more positive way of being.
It took a few more years of wildness for the seed of change to take root, but in the mid 1980s Lama Yeshe finally decided to ordain as a monk and devote the remainder of his life to a spiritual path. He undertook strict meditation retreats which are designed to free the mind from the hold of negative emotions, thus allowing one’s inherent goodness to blossom. During Lama Yeshe’s first retreat, in Woodstock, America, he had an auspicious dream. He dreamt of an island off an island and writes, “I vividly recall that there was a bay on the larger island that was lit up by the lights of houses and bars and restaurants. Across this bay was a small island, shaped like a lion whose mighty paws came down to the sea…. I recall landing there and looking across to the lighted bay.”
Lama Yeshe returned to Scotland to continue retreat and help Akong with the running of Samye Ling. In 1990 he was approached by a Catherine Morris who wanted to sell her home of many years, Holy Isle, because it was such a spiritually powerful place that she “couldn’t handle it”. A devout Catholic, the Virgin Mary had appeared to her in a dream and indicated that she should sell the island to a Lama Yeshe. On arrival to Arran, Lama immediately recognized Lamlash and Holy Isle from his dream many years earlier.
Through the strength of his faith Lama Yeshe managed to buy the isle, which is now known as The Holy Isle Centre for World Peace and Health. The lighthouse buildings at the south have been renovated and now house a retreat for nuns, while the North End offers simple accommodation for guests of all faiths or none to come and enjoy the spiritual healing atmosphere of the isle. Day visitors are welcomed. (The centre is now temporarily closed due to Covid).
From his wild beginnings, Lama Yeshe is now a respected and renowned teacher of Buddhism and meditation. He is grateful for the suffering he has experienced, which, he writes, have been necessary in order for me to become an effective teacher here in the West.
In a world where people the world over are suffering unprecedented loss and illness, loneliness and disconnectedness, From a Mountain in Tibet uplifts the spirits and warms the heart, and leaves the reader with a message of hope that can be carried into the New Year.
As a post-script, I would like to add that due to Lama Yeshe’s vision, I had the good fortune to live on Holy Isle for twelve years where I meditated, cooked and gardened. I then found a lovely home in Lamlash where I look out to see Holy Isle. Perhaps the lights twinkling from my windows are the ones Lama saw in his dream. Thank you Lama Yeshe!
Published by Penguin, From a Mountain in Tibet is available in The Book and Card Centre, Brodick.