Lama Yeshe Yosal, the Abbot, is the brother of the sadly deceased Akong Rinpoche, who, along with Chogyam Tungpa founded Samye Ling fifty years ago. Lama Yeshe's life story is extraordinary. In 1959, he fled Tibet after the Chinese invasion with his brother and 300 others. This journey over the Himalayas was difficult, and all but 13 had starved to death by the time they arrived in India.
He arrived in Scotland, at Samye Ling, in the 1960s with the help of his brother and Chogyam Trungpa. After a rebellious youth, he was ordained by the 16th Karmapa, the head of the Kagyu lineage, in 1980. He's been the abbot since his brother's death in 2013.
I’d seen him about the place previously, and also presiding over some of the morning meditations, but I had never spoken to him before. After requesting a meeting at reception, I was sent up to a room outside his office, where there were several people already waiting. I felt a bit like a naughty boy at school, sent to the headmaster. I also realised that I had about a thousand things I’d like to ask him and hadn't a clue where to start.
When I was called in, I sat down opposite the Lama, who was dressed in traditional monk’s robes and sported a long white goatee. My mind went completely blank when he asked me why I wanted to see him. So after a moment fumbling about, I talked to him about my problems with depression, and anxiety.
He tutted and said that I needed to look at things more positively, and that how people treated me in the world depended upon how I was inside. He also suggested that much of the trouble I encountered was due to the state of my mind, so I had some inner work to do.
Then he said something that stuck in my mind. He said that I did not need to compete with anyone. This was a tremendous relief. I find the 'dog eat dog' nature of Anglo-Saxon countries very distressing, and dislike the forced competitiveness of professional life. In fact, I'd say that aggressive competition is currently tearing the UK apart, and that we all need to find a less destructive way of meeting our needs.
The content of much of what he said impressed me less than the way he said it. He came across as a laid back, genuine, and kind man who seemed incredibly positive given his history. I am not sure I would have been in such a good psychological state if my country had been invaded and I'd had to flee halfway across the world.
I got to ask a couple of other questions that had been niggling me lately. One concerned karma and rebirth.
This is a subject that I mention with some reluctance. Rational people are supposed to summarily dismiss afterlife beliefs, aren't they? But I had to attend a number of funerals last year, and I find that one naturally asks these sorts of questions whilst grieving.
Karma simply refers to cause and effect, and is a far more complex a theory than many realise. It is linked to rebirth because the basic idea is that our actions in this life will eventually determine the condition and state of our next life (Traleg Kyabgon's What is Karma, what it isn't, why it matters is a good reference for this).
Tibetan buddhists do not believe in a ‘soul’ that travels from body to body, but instead in continuity between lives. This continuity is supposed to happen because a ‘bundle’ of psychic tendencies is transferred to a new life after the old one has finished. The image commonly used is an old candle lighting a new one.
Anyway, I asked Lama Yeshe how you could know that rebirth was real. He pointed out that karma was something that was not material, so would not show up on brain scans. I suppose that he meant that it was a matter of faith.
Well, maybe. Part of me would like to think that bits of my psyche will get recycled in another life; it has more appeal than mere oblivion. (Although, as Terry Pratchett observed, learning to potty train for the nth time does not seem especially appealing).
On the other hand, I’m aware of the formidable arguments against life after death. The primary problem is that our consciousness seems intimately dependent upon a functioning brain.
In his book, Kyabgon appeals to Near Death Experiences and the Reincarnation cases investigated by Ian Stevenson and others as evidence for rebirth. The problem is that there are fierce debates over the interpretation of this evidence.
Briefly, one side interprets NDEs/Reincarnation claims in terms of anomalous psychology, the dying brain, false memories, fantasies, and so on, and the other sees them as possible evidence for some form of Survival. There is no consensus amongst the debaters; but most neuroscientists would consider the idea of Survival so unlikely that they probably wouldn't even bother to investigate these claims.
My own, reluctant, view is that whilst Tibetan views on consciousness need to be taken seriously and treated with respect, that I must concur with Arthur C. Clarke, who classified reincarnation and Survival as ‘almost certainly untrue’ according to our current state of knowledge. I would not, however, class karma/rebirth as obviously impossible, simply because we do not know all of the laws of the universe.
It might be that some additional factor is present that could explain the apparent contradiction between brain function and, for example, Ian Stevenson’s cases. However, it could also be that this evidence has been misinterpreted by its advocates, and can be explained in mundane terms. I simply do not know.
Finally, I asked Lama Yeshe about the correct response to the bad political situations in the world outside. How should we respond, I wondered, to those who seem determined to lead us into war. Here, his answer was more satisfying. He suggested to me that if we let our mind get dominated by negative emotions, we’re effectively joining those who wish to lead us into chaos and war. This happens, he suggested, with those who have weak minds and are easily led. If we strengthen our mind, and build compassion, we will not be so deceived.
As I said, Lama Yeshe's manner impressed me more than the actual content of his advice. His good mood was infectious, and by the end, mine had brightened significantly.
The next morning, before breakfast, I was reading in the Johnstone house when the Lama happened to walk past. He asked me what I was reading, and recommended that I look at the Karmapa's latest book on interdependence. (The 17th Karmapa, a young man of 32, recently visited London for the first time). Interconnectedness, the Lama suggested, is something that our culture struggles with. I've no arguments there!