Venerable Lama Thubten Yeshe, popularly known as Lama Yeshe, was born in 1935 not far from Lhasa in the town of Tölung Dechen in Tibet. From a very young age, Lama Yeshe gravitated towards spirituality to such an extent that even as a child, whenever a monk would visit their home, he would beg to leave with the monk and join the monastery, despite his fondness for his parents.
The nuns of Chi-me Lung Gompa were instrumental in Lama Yeshe’s early religious education. It is said that after a lapse of a few years since the learned abbess and Guru of the Chi-me Lung nuns had passed away, a Kagyu Lama widely famed for his psychic powers, Nenung Pawo Rinpoche, showed up at Chi-me Lung Gompa. The Chi-me Lung nuns took the opportunity to enquire as to the whereabouts of their Guru. Nenung Pawo Rinpoche answered that their Guru had taken rebirth in a nearby village and directed them to search for a boy with specific traits and details. Following Nenung Pawo Rinpoche’s advice, the Chi-me Lung nuns subsequently found the young Lama Yeshe who was living practically two hours away by horse.
Having found the young incarnation of their Guru, the Chi-me Lung nuns would frequently visit the young Lama Yeshe at his parents’ home and with the permission of his parents, would often take the young Lama Yeshe back to their Gompa to attend the various ceremonies and other religious functions, which would sometimes last for days at a time.
Lama Yeshe relished such trips to Chi-me Lung Gompa and he often stayed in the shrine room and attended services with the Chi-me Lung nuns. In essence, the Chi-me Lung nuns nurtured the young Lama Yeshe’s deep yearning for the Dharma. Lama Yeshe’s uncle Ngawang Norbu, a student geshe from Sera Monastery also helped shape Lama Yeshe’s early education by teaching him the alphabet, grammar and reading.
Such nurturing from Lama Yeshe’s uncle and the Chi-me Lung nuns continued even when Lama Yeshe joined Sera Jey Monastery (a college at one of the three great Gelug monastic centres located in the vicinity of Lhasa) at the tender age of six, with the blessings of his parents. Lama Yeshe was taken to Sera Jey by his uncle, who promised Lama Yeshe’s mother that he would take good care of the young boy. His uncle strictly supervised as well as pushed Lama Yeshe to study very hard, whilst the Chi-me Lung nuns offered Lama Yeshe robes and the other necessities of life that he required while at the monastery.
At the age of eight, Lama Yeshe was ordained as a novice monk by the Venerable Purchog Jampa Rinpoche and at the age of 28, he received full monk’s ordination from Kyabje Ling Rinpoche.
While at Sera Jey Monastery, Lama Yeshe received both Sutra and Tantra teachings from a long line of illustrious Lamas such as Kyabje Trijang Rinpoche, Kyabje Ling Rinpoche, Kyabje Dagri Rinpoche, Kyabje Zong Rinpoche, Lhatzün Dorje-chang Rinpoche and many other great gurus and meditation masters.
Some of the Tantric meditational deities into whose practice Lama Yeshe was initiated include Heruka, Vajrabhairava and Guhyasamaja, representing the compassion, wisdom and skilful means of a fully enlightened being. In addition, the other teachers who guided Lama Yeshe’s spiritual development include Geshe Thubten Wangchug Rinpoche, Geshe Lhundrub Sopa Rinpoche, Geshe Rabten and Geshe Ngawang Gedun.
Lama Yeshe stayed at Sera Jey Monastery until 1959, when he famously said,
In that year the Chinese kindly told us that it was time to leave Tibet and meet the outside world.
Lama Yeshe fled to Bhutan and went on to the Tibetan refugee camp at Buxa, India where he continued to study and meditate. Interestingly, Jeffrey Paine reports in his book “Re-enchantment: Tibetan Buddhism Comes to the West” that Lama Yeshe deliberately refused the Geshe degree, despite having studied for it. Many years later, when pressed as to why he had shunned this prestigious degree, Lama Yeshe laughed and retorted, And be Geshe Yeshe?”. Lama Yeshe was eventually awarded an honorary Geshe degree from Sera Jey Monastery in the early 80s.
It was also in India that Lama Yeshe’s teacher, Geshe Rabten entrusted a younger monk, Lama Thubten Zopa Rinpoche, to Lama Yeshe’s care. The two would work together for the rest of Lama Yeshe’s life.
In 1967, Lama Yeshe left India and went to Nepal with his chief disciple, Lama Zopa. Within a relatively short span of two years, he established Kopan Monastery near Kathmandu to cater to the growth of Buddhism among Westerners. The first annual ‘One-Month Meditation Course’ was held at Kopan Monastery in November 1971 and, in light of the growing demand from their Western students, both Lamas decided to work towards opening a sister centre to be used for retreats.
In 1972, along with a few of their Western students, Lama Yeshe and Lama Zopa bought an old colonial house on a hill above McLeod Ganj at village Dharamkot in Himachal Pradesh, and Tushita Retreat Centre (which was later renamed Tushita Meditation Centre) was founded.
An unconventional teacher, Lama Yeshe was spreading the Dharma among Westerners at a time when the majority of the Tibetan religious community considered Westerners to be undesirable students. In fact, Lama Yeshe was heavily criticised by such Tibetans, who called him a “paisa lama“, loosely translated as “one who is interested primarily in money”.
By 1974, both Lamas had begun making annual teaching tours to the West. As a result of these travels, a worldwide network of Buddhist teaching and meditation centres — the Foundation for the Preservation of the Mahayana Tradition (FPMT) — began to develop.
It is well known that Lama Yeshe strongly relied on Dorje Shugden for FPMT’s growth and success. Lama Zopa himself said that Lama Yeshe would never begin a Kopan course without a kangso to propitiate the blessings of his Dharma Protector Dorje Shugden.
In 1984, after an intense decade of imparting a wide variety of incredible teachings and establishing one FPMT activity after another, Lama Yeshe passed into clear light at the age of 49.
In 1986, His Holiness the 14th Dalai Lama confirmed Lama Zopa’s observations that Ösel Hita Torres, the one-year-old son of Lama Yeshe’s students María Torres and Francisco Hita, was the unmistaken incarnation of Lama Yeshe.
Tenzin Ösel Rinpoche was enthroned in March 1987 at Tushita Retreat Centre in Dharamsala, India where he stayed until 1991 when he commenced his monastic education at Sera Jey Monastery at the age of seven. According to records, Lama Ösel received private tutoring in Western subjects and participated in monastic education simultaneously. He continued his studies in Sera Jey until 2003, when he relocated to Victoria, British Columbia to engage in a traditional Western education.
From 2004 to 2010, Lama Ösel pursued many creative interests while living around Europe, including a Master’s Degree in documentary film-making, completing two cooking courses and dabbling with music. In May 2010, Lama Ösel joined his first FPMT board meeting in Portland, Oregon, USA, and has spent time at various FPMT centres since then.
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