Community: Contemplating the Legacy of Lama Jetsun Yeshe
Catherine Rathbun, Lama Jetsun Yeshe, was the meditation columnist for Parvati Magazine from June 2012 to September 2014. She passed away this February after a recurrence of breast cancer. We spoke with David Liang, senior teacher at the Friends of the Heart meditation centre which Lama Catherine founded, about what this transition time has been like for their spiritual community.
Parvati Magazine: What was Lama Catherine’s role at Friends of the Heart and what legacy does she leave?
David Liang: Lama Catherine has had varying roles over the years at Friends of the Heart but she has always served as our spiritual head and advisor. This was a bit before my time but I believe when the decision was made by her and her then students to start the centre, she was the main person teachings classes and leading retreats. However, as senior students started to mature in their practice, they began to share in those responsibilities. This freed up her to time for writing and as a result “Developing the World Mind: A Study of the Elements Mandala of Tibetan Buddhism” and “Clear Heart, Open Mind: A Commentary on Tibetan Meditation” were published. After her initial cancer diagnosis, in order to help her energy and recovery, we agreed that she would place her focus on leading our weekend and summer retreats but would leave the teaching of the regular classes to the senior students. Once again, this allowed her more time to concentrate on her writing and I am happy to say that 3 new books are presently in the works and will be released shortly! I think her legacy will continue through all of her writing. For all who were fortunate to have met her, her energy of kindness, compassion and playfulness will continue through us. She was such a wonderful example of how we can embrace spirituality in our everyday lives, no matter what our personal situation may be.
PMAG: Did she leave any instructions or guidance before she passed on?
DL: Jetsun-ma tended to work in a very personal way with her students. So I think anyone who saw her before she passed received their own special instructions. Jetsun-ma was very special. She not only had the knowledge of the teachings but she really embodied them. I always felt that even when she wasn’t speaking “Dharma”, her actual presence was speaking it. Just being around her was so lovely.
With respect to guidance or instructions on what to do with the centre, I recall a conversation I had with her where she told me it was up to us, the senior students, to determine the future of Friends of the Heart. She said if it dissolved that would be fine and if it stayed that would also be fine. It was like she wanted me and all of us to determine for ourselves, deep within our hearts, what we wanted to do and how best to fill out our aspiration. If the presence of Friends of the Heart played or did not play a part in it, she would be fine with it.
PMAG: How has the centre adjusted and responded to this transition?
DL: I think the centre is still adjusting and responding to the transition. With the passing of any spiritual head there will always be a time of instability for the Sangha as most people are attracted to a specific centre because of the personality of a teacher and how those teachings are transmitted through that teacher. When that disappears, it is natural for people to enter a space of uncertainty. So I guess, we will see how things unfold.
PMAG: It seems all traditions and lineages must face at some point the transition of a beloved teacher. How can we learn and grow from such experiences? DL: Yes, all traditions and lineages will face the passing of a beloved teacher. What can we learn from it? I believe it is a perfect teaching on impermanence. Anicca, anicca, anicca. May all our teachers have long and healthy lives but even they must go! I think we should do our best to keep this thought in mind while they are still alive. That way we can make a choice to seize any opportunity we have to receive their teachings so that when they do pass, we will have no regrets.
Friends of the Heart is a meditation centre and group of lay people who actively pursue the philosophic and ethical teachings of East and West. Its classes and workshops draw largely from the wisdom of Buddhism but also Christian and Sufi traditions. Its aim is to help people develop ways to live with a compassionate heart and a clear mind while remaining engaged with the ordinary world.
For more information, please visit friendsoftheheart.com.