So I just lived in a Tibetan Buddhist monastery for five weeks… Sorry in advance for the verbose post and possible need for Google and for any errors. I completely lost my final draft, so this entry is a rushed re-do of an older draft.
After my trek I set off to learn Buddhism through a 30-day course called the ‘November Course’. Perched up on the hill overlooking the Kathmandu Valley is Kopan Monastery; peaceful and clean, it was a stark contrast to the bustling, dirty city below. This is where I and 260 other Westerners would live amongst the 350 resident monks while studying the Lam Rim otherwise known as The Graduated Path to Enlightenment. Kopan was founded in 1970 by Lama Zopa Rinpoche and Lama Yeshe (who passed away in 1984); these two were instrumental in bringing Tibetan Buddhism to the West, offering the first November course back in 1971.
We were given a package of dharma materials, which would be our texts for the course and were told the rules, which included the 5 precepts of no killing, no stealing, no lying, no intoxicants, and no sexual activity, plus no cell phones, no leaving the monastery grounds, and keeping silence between 9 PM until after lunch the next day. I decided I wanted to be silent at all times so I wore the little yellow ribbon that politely asked people not to talk to me (introvert heaven). The accommodations were basic – I shared a four-bed room with three very nice women and a bathroom shared with the floor. I soon discovered it was impossible to stay silent around my roommates as none of them opted for the ribbon and they were having good discussions that I wanted to be a part of.
We had three delicious vegetarian meals per day with lunch being the largest and most diverse. On the grounds was a beautiful stupa garden, a nice quiet hill to escape to, a library, a bookstore, a convenience store, a cafe, and for the animal lovers, two dogs and two cats.
Despite all the beauty and overall awesomeness that is Kopan, the first three days were extremely challenging. It was a very young, loud demographic and some were constantly late for class, which added a college campus feel. I felt myself becoming judgmental and irritated – yellow ribbons were few and far between and there was constant chatter even in designated quiet spots and silent times. Add that to the plague that was quickly spreading, making it very difficult to concentrate during meditation with the constant nose blowing and coughing. These were all part of the lessons Kopan would offer me, like practicing patience, compassion, kindness, and when Donald Trump got elected, equanimity (yes this did come up in one of our meditations).
I have rejected organized religion my entire life, believing it was nothing more than brainwashing. I was drawn to Buddhism because it was different, simpler. My past Buddhist experience has been in the Theravada (Hinayana) tradition, so the prostration’s, prayers, Tibetan mantras and dedications were completely new and it immediately felt churchy. Thankfully I was not alone in my thinking and the questions I had in mind were asked by other students – the answers given eased my concerns.
On day 4 I went in with a different attitude – anytime a negative thought entered my mind, I repeated a mantra, which immediately replaced the negative thought with something positive. I enthusiastically participated in all the Mahayana practices and tried really hard not to be judgmental. My knee on the other hand was not a happy camper; I expected knee and foot pain on my trek and instead I got neck pain and I expected hip pain while in meditation but mostly got knee pain. Go figure – I’m sure there’s a lesson in there somewhere.
As the course continued, some days were great and others were challenging. The teachings were heavy with topics like: death and impermanence, reincarnation and cyclic existence, dependent arising, and the very complicated subject of emptiness. These teachings were led by the wonderful Venerable Fedor, a German monk who proved that this is a life long practice when he showed his impatience towards latecomers to class.
The main difference between the Mahayana and Hinayana Buddhist paths is that Mahayanist’s will continue in cyclic existence until all beings are enlightened. Whereas Hinayanist’s final aim is to obtain self liberation and not reincarnate for the sake of others. Mahayanist’s seem to turn their nose down at Hinayanist’s (the “lesser vehicle”) calling them self-cherishing and of a simpler mind.
It’s not to say that I agreed with everything but day by day things started to click and my questions were still being answered without me even having to ask them. I also learned that I created eons of negative karma by killing hundreds of mosquitoes this past summer; thankfully we are able to purify our negative karma.
Not only was I blessed with great roommates, I had the best study group – we met for one hour 6 days per week and it was so nice to share our experiences in a safe and supportive environment. Lilian, our group leader, is one of the nicest human beings I’ve ever met and with her vast knowledge of the Dharma, our group was in good hands.
My favorite part of the day was mornings before silence was broken by the majority of the participants. Starting my day at 5:30 AM with around 80 prostrations, not only gave me an incredible ab workout, it woke me up and got me focused for the day and it purified my negative karma, of course! This was followed by watching the sun rise and the mist swirl in the valley below with coffee in hand and the song-like praying of the monks in the background. The one hour meditation session that followed was always my favorite of the day.
Not all mornings were so blissful. Insomnia caught up with me and on one such morning, I was grumpy all through prostration’s and coffee. When I returned for morning meditation, there was a small flower on my cushion, which made me teary – how dare I be grumpy here in this beautiful place surrounded by so many kind people! And then the first words out of Venerable Tingyal’s mouth were, “give yourself permission to feel bad”and “give yourself permission to not be perfect” and with that I cried through the whole meditation session – so many lessons.
Things got exciting in the third week. Lama Zopa Rinpoche arrived and offered some teachings. It was interesting to say the least – watching this enlightened being (a bodhisattva) and recognized reincarnate of the Lawudo Lama up on his throne spewing forth words of wisdom and animated threats about going into the lower realms. All while rocking back-and-forth, slipping in and out of meditation (or sleep since he doesn’t actually sleep at night) was nothing short of amazing. It was impossible to be unhappy around him especially listening to his infectious laugh.
It was also at this time that we took the 8 Mahayana precepts, so in addition to the five we were already practicing, we were to only take one meal per day, no music, dancing or singing and no jewelry or perfume. It was easy enough since we were provided hot chocolate and Viva for breakfast and dinner. This was also the time I caught the dreaded cold so I wasn’t hungry but I also lost the energy for my daily yoga practice – needless to say no weight was lost, haha.
We were also given a week to think about taking refuge in the 3 Jewels (Buddha, Dharma and Sangha), which means that in the mind these three are the best available and from now on until I die, I’m going to take the Buddhist path. I still wasn’t resonating with all the teachings and had already decided that I would continue on the “simple” Theravada path so I wasn’t sure about taking refuge here. I spoke with the nun (Ani Karin) who led our evening sessions and she assured me that I could take what I wanted from the teachings and that it was okay not to practice Mahayana – with this I signed up for the refuge ceremony. As the day approached, I was questioning my decision – do I really need to become a Buddhist to practice? wasn’t “Buddhist” merely a label? Would friends call me out for not acting in a Buddhist Way? In the end, I decided my hesitation was a sign that I wasn’t ready. I can take the four root vows in my heart and maintain the practice as best I can and when it feels right I will have other opportunities to take refuge.
I wish I could say that the course changed me. Sorry, I still have the same neurosis and negative thoughts, but I learned a ton and will walk away with a toolbox full of practices for a lifetime. What it really comes down to is being compassionate and mindful to not hurt any sentient being (because they may at some time been your mother – true story), to be careful with your actions of body and speech, to be a good person with a kind heart and to not worry so much about your own outer happiness in this life but develop inner mental happiness by using the dharma (for example, by using patience and compassion as an antidote to anger).
The last two days of the course were a lot more relaxed. On day 29, we went on pilgrimages to both Boudha and Swayambhu stupas where we offered rice, incense, and katag, repeated prayers and mantras, and circumambulated the stupas, for good karma and to increase merit. On the final day it was the long life puja for Lama Zopa Rinpoche, which is a big celebration with offerings, prayers, and performances for his long life.
We then had two days off before the silent retreat started so I decided to have a break from the monastery. I spent one day in Bhaktipur and one day in Boudhanath. Back “home”, over half the course participants had left and having already moved into my own room a week prior, I was excited to finally have true silence to process the teachings. Days still started at 5:30 AM with prostrations but we had no discussion groups or teachings; instead we had six meditation sessions and a Vajrasatva practice to end the day. Thankfully no sessions were mandatory so I took the opportunity to have some extra free time, which was needed since I had the worst allergic reaction I have ever experienced: head to toe hives, swollen hands, feet, and face along with Mick Jager lips. I’m still getting hives at night, so I’m not sure what I’m reacting to. After 2 days of that, I found it hard to get back into a routine, I was okay as I wasn’t loving the meditations anyway. I dropped down to 4 sessions per day and spent the rest of my time in the library, garden, or cafe. I also finally went to see Rinpoche’s animal sanctuary – when he sees goats tied outside a butcher shop, he purchases them, puts them in the car, and then brings them to Kopan. He circumambulates them around the stupa so that they have a better rebirth in their next life and then they live out this life on a nice piece of land he purchased just for them nearby with their very own stupa.
On the spectrum of the 30 people who left before the midway point of the course and the gentleman who became a monk after the course, I’d say I was in the middle. I appreciate that these are very valuable teachings handed down from the Buddha and I am grateful that I had an opportunity to learn them in this setting, here in Nepal. I can get on board with a lot of the teachings and feel like my time here was not wasted. I would highly recommend the course to anyone wanting a deep dive into Buddhism. Otherwise you can take online courses at fpmt.org. Let me know if you have any questions!