At a monastery in Nepal, Sally Quin becomes happily immersed in Buddhist teachings
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.
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.
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
Quiet contemplation: A monk beats a retreat at Kopan