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5 January 2013 003Dharamshala: Tushita Meditation Centre's 40th anniversary celebrations were low key considering its legacy.

Thousands of curious travellers from across the globe have flocked to the centre, in a tranquil forest glade which seems a world away from the hustle and bustle of McLeod Ganj's busy Main Square, just a 15 minute walk through enchanting deodar and pine forest below, to study Tibetan Mahayana Buddhism since it first opened its doors in 1972.

Over the last three years, people from 78 countries have visited Tushita. In 2011 these students, aged 18 – 81, attended courses ranging from the centre's increasingly popular 10 day Introduction to Buddhism course, focusing on key aspects of the 2,500 year old philosophy including karma, love and compassion, intermediate programmes on key Buddhist texts including Geshe Langri Tangpa's Eight Verses of Mind Training and Ngulchu Thogme's 37 Steps to Becoming a Bodhisattva, to in depth retreats for more advanced practitioners.

Emily Withers, 25, from Australia, who attended an Introduction to Buddhism course in 2009, said: "I have fond memories of Tushita; of the mist through the pine forest, the resident dog curled up on the chair and the calmness of everyone eating together at meal times.

"Tushita to me is not necessarily just about Buddhism. You don't have to believe in Buddhism to stay there or to learn. It is a place you can really use to take time out, to learn, to live and to be, even just for a few days or a week."

A little over 40 years ago, that magic glade on the "blessed hill", nestled in the shadow of the Himalayan Dhauladhar mountains, was occupied by a picturesque colonial house owned by local family, the Nowerjees, who continue to run the shop they established in the town's Main Square in 1860 to this day.

Then came a maverick Tibetan Lama with a great vision.

Tushita's founder, Lama Thubten Yeshe, had a seemingly divine talent for reaching out to his fellow human beings. In her 1988 book, Reincarnation: The Boy Lama, in which she tells the compelling story of what many believe to have been Lama Yeshe's reincarnation as a Spanish boy, British journalist, Vicki Mackenzie, described the extraordinary lengths "Lama" went to, in order to better understand the mindset of his western students.

"Revolutionary in his broadmindedness," Lama Yeshe visited night clubs, played the tables in Las Vegas, and according to Mackenzie, dragged his reluctant disciple Lama Zopa Rinpoche (now spiritual director of the Foundation for the Preservation of the Mahayana Tradition, of which Tushita is part) "not only to Disneyland, where he tried most of the rides and wore a Mickey Mouse hat – but also to a strip joint, where they both sat eating ice-cream, not at all shocked by the antics of the lady on the stage."

She said: "He was all that I had imagined a spiritual master should be: radiant, filled with a zest for life, yet at the same time an acute sensitivity for our innate sorrow; unerringly wise; suffused with humility; completely ego-less; and overflowing with an irrepressible sense of humour.

"Struck by life's absurdity, a joke, or spontaneous joy, he would burst forth into peals of laughter, rocking back and forth on his throne, throwing his robes over his head, hitting himself with his rosary.

"If this was holiness, it was worth emulating."

Lama Yeshe was one of the very first Tibetans to flee his homeland following the Lhasa uprising in 1959, during which the ancient monastic university Sera, which he joined aged six, was bombarded with shells and many of the monks killed or taken prisoner.

Upon arrival in a steamy holding camp in Assam, India, Lama Yeshe distracted himself from the sickness and "terrible food" by learning English, much to the disapproval of his fellow Tibetans, often arriving late to his 9am debating sessions due to having devoted much of the night to his studies.

It is believed that Lama Yeshe was the reincarnation of an abbess and great yogini, who had resided at a nunnery two hours away by horse from where he was born. The Abbess's devoted nuns claimed that her fervent prayer had been to be reborn in a place in which she could "bring Buddhism to those in spiritual darkness" and teach those whom no other lama would teach.

From the day he and Lama Zopa accidentally received their first western student, Hollywood starlet, Zina Rachevsky, in 1965, Lama Yeshe exhibited a particular talent for teaching and bonding with westerners – often to the distain of other Tibetans, who disapproved of his associations with the "red skinned barbarians."

But he plodded on regardless, and once he had established a firm following in Kathmandu – mostly among hippies still searching for their guru having tried and tested a myriad of faiths and philosophies along the famed hippy trail, he and Zina founded Kopan monastery, where they set up the now legendary November meditation course, in 1971.

A year later, several former Kopan students had found their way to the pine-clad hills of Dharamshala, home of the Dalai Lama and Tibetan government in exile, where Lama Yeshe felt it appropriate to establish a mediation centre, which he named Tushita, meaning 'place of joy.'

He purchased the beautiful old Nowerjee residence, for the sum of US$ 5,000, which he merrily had changed into 50,000 Rupees in 100 Rupee notes which he insisted on counting with Canadian disciple, Jhampa Zangpo, in Delhi's chaotic Shankar Market to the bemusement of passers by – the concept of money having meant nothing to the sheltered monk for whom everything was provided by his monastery until his arrival in India.

The original house was demolished in 2007 and today, the four acres of land are home to three gompas, a kitchen, dining hall and office, above which dormitory buildings and washrooms catering for over 100 students rise up the mountainside.

Describing the feel of the Main Gompa, which is currently undergoing extensive restoration work, Tushita's resident teacher for 2012, Australian monk the venerable Tony Beaumont, who this year taught 11 courses at the centre at which he first arrived from Kopan in 1976, said: "Right on this very location was an old British style bungalow with a corrugated roof, and if you should have your eyes closed you'd think you were walking around the same building.

"The gompa needed to be bigger because when I was there in the seventies there were just two main rooms. One was the gompa hall and another was where people slept.

"It's different here now because so many people are travelling. Back then it was more intrepid hippy types."

Back in 1976, the year in which Tony took refuge in the three jewels of Buddhism, the Buddha, dharma (teachings) and Sangha (fellow spiritual practitioners) with Lama Yeshe, he came to Tushita to participate in its annual Vajrasattva group retreat held between June and September, which continues to this day.

"During those three months it was raining all the time and nobody came up here," he said.

"There were 12 people on my first course, eight men and four women. Now it's generally the other way around.

"Lobsang Nyima was the director, and I think he got upset over a few things.

"The idea of sitting down and doing this retreat was that you would sit there and not move until you achieved enlightenment. We would put a swastika of rice under our seats (the swastika being a symbol of well-being and determination in Tibetan Buddhism). Well, the floor was concrete and at the end of the three months we moved our cushions to discover that the rice had sucked up all the water through the carpet, and it had all rotted.

"I think after that they put in a wooden floor."

In the late 1980s the mediation centre began running courses for western and Indian students interested in learning more about Tibetan Buddhism. The courses have swelled in popularity as the word spread, and today, as well as its many residential courses, the centre also hosts short non-residential mediation retreats, movie nights and daily meditation sessions.

"My time at Tushita has influenced my life so greatly that I am living a more conscious, slower and more thoughtful life today, even back in my home country," said Emily.

"My experience there was a follow up to an earlier Introduction to Buddhism course I did at Kopan Monastery, with a greater focus on assessing some thoughts and learning strategies to help me cope better with my life back in Australia.

"I know that my time in India, especially at Kopan and Tushita, not only helped me see, realise and understand a lot of feelings, but gave me the knowledge and understanding to let go, so that I could function in a more valuable and productive way, and be a better person.

"For myself, for others and for the planet every day."

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