HOL­I­DAY HEAVEN

At a monastery in Nepal, Sally Quin be­comes hap­pily im­mersed in Bud­dhist teach­ings

The Weekend Australian - Travel - - Travel -

AT Kath­mandu air­port, I am de­scended on by ea­ger touts and bun­dled, al­most un­wit­tingly, into a di­lap­i­dated and quite un­of­fi­cial-look­ing Toy­ota Corolla taxi for the half-hour drive to Kopan Monastery.

As we make our ex­traor­di­nar­ily bumpy as­cent to­wards the hills above the Kath­mandu val­ley, signs of monas­tic life emerge as we pass two Bud­dhist nuns who smile and wave madly. I haven’t quite cot­toned on to the fact that Kopan eti­quette re­quires me to pick up any monk or nun at­tempt­ing the steep climb on foot.

At re­cep­tion I de­posit all elec­tronic giz­mos, namely my com­puter and iPod, as part of monastery rules, which also in­clude no killing, ly­ing, steal­ing, al­co­hol, smok­ing, drugs or sex­ual con­duct. This is my home for the next month as I un­der­take the fa­bled (in Bud­dhist cir­cles) Novem­ber course, an in­tro­duc­tion to Ti­betan Bud­dhist phi­los­o­phy and med­i­ta­tion. The first onemonth re­treat for for­eign­ers was held in 1970, soon af­ter the es­tab­lish­ment of the monastery by gu­rus Lama Thubten Yeshe and Lama Zopa Rin­poche, with the en­cour­age­ment of their first West­ern dis­ci­ple, Rus­sian-Amer­i­can princess Zina Rachevsky.

On my first night, to the heav­enly strains of evening prayers, I in­ves­ti­gate the brightly il­lu­mi­nated grounds. Emerg­ing un­ex­pect­edly af­ter a steep flight of stairs, I am taken aback by the beauty of the main stupa, a huge and richly dec­o­rated spire said to rep­re­sent the Bud­dha’s en­light­ened mind. I am in­trigued by the in­or­di­nately large yel­low, pink and lilac chrysan­the­mums that cre­ate a blaze of colour through­out the monastery and co-or­di­nate rather per­fectly with the monks’ pur­ple robes. Perched high above the twin­kling lights of the Kath­mandu val­ley, Kopan ap­pears as a mag­i­cal, float­ing ci­tadel.

Day one of the course is im­bued with ner­vous an­tic­i­pa­tion as 200-plus strangers from ev­ery con­ceiv­able part of the globe gather.

I make the first of many rookie mis­takes by wear­ing a head scarf into the gompa (prayer hall). I won­der if there is an in­struc­tion man­ual I’ve forgotten to read and ad­mit to feel­ing ever so slightly in­tim­i­dated by the rit­u­als and teach­ings, most of which are new to me. Th­ese anx­i­eties soon sub­side in the gen­tle at­mos­phere of the gompa, in which a sub­tle and largely un­spo­ken ca­ma­raderie de­vel­ops among par­tic­i­pants.

My wor­ries are also al­layed on meet­ing my room-mates, a lovely Amer­i­can en­vi­ron­men­tal­ist fresh from Peace Corps work in China, an im­mensely lik­able and straight-shoot­ing Aus­tralian teacher and a de­light­ful, yoga-mad Swede. Our fri­vol­ity knows no bounds, es­pe­cially when I am bit­ten on the der­riere by a large wasp that has taken up res­i­dence in my sleep­ing bag. It goes with­out say­ing ev­ery­one is far more con­cerned about the wel­fare of the wasp than my wounds.

In keep­ing with the no-killing rule, it is a month in which the ex­cru­ci­at­ingly care­ful re­moval of in­sects from dan­ger is de rigueur.

Our daily sched­ule runs from 5.30am to 9pm and is di­vided into ses­sions of an­a­lyt­i­cal and con­tem­pla­tive med­i­ta­tion, philo­soph­i­cal teach­ings, karma yoga (which in­volves the clean­ing of com­mon ar­eas) and dis­cus­sion groups.

Through th­ese ac­tiv­i­ties we try to un­der­stand the na­ture of our minds and to de­velop in­tro­spec­tion to re­duce our neg­a­tive ac­tions in the world.

This is, of course, no small task and it takes about a mil­lisec­ond of med­i­ta­tion for me to re­alise how lit­tle con­trol I have over the re­lent­less and of­ten er­ratic play of thoughts that seem to hur­tle cease­lessly through my mind.

But the po­ten­tial trans­for­ma­tion of such ag­i­ta­tion into greater clar­ity for the greater good seems an un­be­liev­ably worth­while en­deav­our.

In the last two weeks of the course we take a set of vows known as the Eight Ma­hayana Pre­cepts be­fore sun­rise each day. To add to our reg­u­lar monastery rules, now we can wear nei­ther make-up, jew­ellery nor per­fume, or sing, dance and play mu­sic (even in our minds, we are re­minded). We are also down to one meal a day.

Stripped back to ba­sics, I ac­quire a gen­eral sense of calm, punc­tu­ated by an oc­ca­sional de­sire to hot­foot it to the Hy­att Re­gency, which is only five min­utes away.

This is no By­ron Bay health re­treat and a month of cold show­ers in a Nepalese win­ter is some­what try­ing. But to be de­prived of such sen­sory plea­sures seems an es­sen­tial part of con­cen­trat­ing fo­cus on the in­ner life. I have time to look closely at the machi­na­tions of my mind and to re­alise I am rather fickle and not par­tic­u­larly adept at tem­per­ing even mi­nor ir­ri­ta­tions. It also be­comes bla­tantly ap­par­ent that our West­ern sense of de­pri­va­tion ap­pears ridicu­lous in re­la­tion to the tri­als of daily life in the vil­lages be­low Kopan.

We are re­lin­quish­ing many of the indicators that re­in­force our sense of unique­ness, deny­ing our­selves ma­te­rial pos­ses­sions, con­tact with loved ones and even speech as we re­main in si­lence for long pe­ri­ods. Ev­ery­one seems to float in a vaguely anony­mous state as nor­mal rules of so­cial dis­course and in­ter­ac­tion no longer ap­ply. It some­how seems en­tirely in­ap­pro­pri­ate in this en­vi­ron­ment to open a con­ver­sa­tion with the ubiq­ui­tous: ‘‘ So what do you do?’’ I take a par­tial break from my­self and it is a lib­er­at­ing and rev­e­la­tory ex­pe­ri­ence.

The mild duress of the Ma­hayana Pre­cepts is com­pen­sated by the ar­rival of Lama Zopa for teach­ing. On the ap­pointed day there is an ex­cite­ment and an­tic­i­pa­tion akin to Christ­mas morn­ing be­fore present-open­ing time. Flags and ban­ners are in­stalled at the en­trance to Kopan and sym­bols painted on the path where the feted Zopa will walk. At 4pm, trum­pets from the top of the main gompa her­ald the long-awaited ar­rival. Zopa pa­tiently blesses each of the sev­eral hun­dred monks, nuns and course par­tic­i­pants who have gath­ered.

Prayer scarves are of­fered and he gives me a most con­vivial pat on both cheeks. Zopa’s teach­ings run deep into the night and we fall about in fits of laugh­ter as he muses on Western­ers’ strange at­trac­tion to del­i­ca­cies such as blue cheese. He re­peats, with in­credulity, ‘‘ Blue cheese?’’ In­deed, we are a touch ab­surd.

At var­i­ous in­ter­vals, tea is served by five blokey vol­un­teers who have trans­formed them­selves into nim­ble nin­jas, mov­ing stealth-like through the gompa and pour­ing drinks del­i­cately from un­wieldy ket­tles. There seems no bet­ter place to be on earth.

A few nights later, a group of us hap­pen upon Zopa and at­ten­dant monks seated in the open air and hold­ing two goats. Zopa re­cites mantras and care­fully places prayer scarves around the goats’ necks. It tran­spires the an­i­mals were pur­chased that af­ter­noon from out­side a Kath­mandu restau­rant. They are saved from im­mi­nent death and with such bless­ings likely to gain a higher re­birth.

Even if I con­tinue to grap­ple with such con­cepts, I am struck by the won­drous spon­tane­ity and in­clu­sive­ness of this ten­der ges­ture.

My room-mates and I have a par­tic­u­larly fas­ci­nat­ing meet­ing with four-year-old Ten­zin Phuntsok Rin­poche, recog­nised by the Dalai Lama as the rein­car­na­tion of Geshe Lama Kon­chog, a great yogi and teacher who passed away at Kopan in 2001. Though child­like in some re­spects, I find Phuntsok Rin­poche’s de­meanour un­can­nily ma­ture.

One of the unique as­pects of the Kopan ex­pe­ri­ence is in wit­ness­ing the rit­u­als of this ac­tive monastery. We ob­serve the monks in an­i­mated philo­soph­i­cal de­bate and are in­vited to join them in prayer cer­e­monies de­voted to the long life of var­i­ous la­mas. It is salient to be re­minded that this is a cul­ture in ex­ile, and Kopan Monastery and Kha­choe Ghakyil Ling Nun­nery just down the hill are of pro­found im­por­tance to the con­tin­ued trans­mis­sion of Ti­betan Bud­dhist teach­ing.

This sab­bat­i­cal is not for ev­ery­one and there is a small at­tri­tion rate. But stay­ing the course brings re­wards that con­tinue to res­onate long af­ter the event. Back in the rough and tum­ble of reg­u­lar life, I pause con­tent­edly know­ing that the chant­ing goes on and that the oc­to­ge­nar­ian gompa keeper con­tin­ues to makes his rounds, keep­ing an ever gen­tle eye on the next batch of Kopan stu­dents.

Check­list

Reg­u­lar 10-day in­tro­duc­tory cour­ses are held at Kopan Monastery from Fe­bru­ary to Oc­to­ber. Other re­treats are held through the year. Cour­ses in­clude dor­mi­tory ac­com­mo­da­tion, all meals and ma­te­ri­als. More: www.kopan-monastery.com.

Pic­tures: Carl Jensen, Chris­tian Pon­tin

Peace and plenty: Life at Kopan Monastery, over­look­ing the Kath­mandu val­ley. Cre­at­ing a sand-painted man­dala, top left; the richly dec­o­rated stupa, bot­tom left; monks in colour­ful robes, main pic­ture

Pic­ture: Carl Jensen

Quiet con­tem­pla­tion: A monk beats a re­treat at Kopan

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