Slow Travel in Nepal:  Life in a Buddhist Monastery

Slow travel takes on new meaning  from the top of a green mountain overlooking sprawling, dusty Kathmandu.  I am at  Kopan, a Buddhist Monastery  in the Tibentan tradition.  Quiet permeates the air with an occasional eagle spreading its wings soaring overhead.  The mountains in the far distance are an ever changing tableau-variously swathed in gray clouds, hidden by white puffy ones, or shining clear in the aftermath of a monsoon rains shower. A golden temple looms in front of me, dominating the center of the mountain.  Peering inside, one can see an enormous  Bhudda, and ornate, colorful walls and columns.

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View from the Monastery
Gardens at Kopan

The monastery, a mere thirty minute ride from the international airport is a world apart from the teeming, crowded streets and alleyways of third world Kathmandu.  Up in Kopan there are well tended paths, green gardens, flowering trees, ornate temples, and golden statues of Bhudda. The monks garbed in burgundy colored robes, with bright yellow shirts peeping out the top, gather before 6 AM for communal prayer that is strongly reminiscent of the familiar  prayer in the neighborhood synagogue near my house, with the welcome addition of mugs of hot tea and bread, that are past around to each person who has arrived on time.  Chanting is occasionally disturbed by the crashing of cymbals, the  ringing of  bells, and two horns vigorously blown,  creating a cacophony of noise that perhaps helps the prayers reach their intended destination.

Kopan Monastery is unique in that it offers courses about Buddhism open to all that are interested,  throughout the year. There are both beginners and advanced courses that include anywhere from days to weeks of silence.   Several times during the year, when there are no official courses taking place, the monastery welcomes what they call “private stays,” utilizing  the extensive guestrooms and generating additional income for the monastery.  During these private stays which can range from days to weeks, visitors are welcome to attend Dharma talks, an hour in length, that are offered by the local nuns and monks providing a general introduction to Tibetan Buddhism.  Dharma means “the way” and refers to the Buddhist way of life.

Luckily, the few free days that I had before beginning work on a post earthquake psychosocial intervention program with a local NGO, were available for private stays.  Sitting cross legged on cushions in a corner of the massive temple, during the morning Dharma talks we learn about the root of human suffering, the nature of anger, and the Buddhist way (literally the Dharma) to release ourselves from these and other ills that human beings are plagued with.  The two middle aged nuns who led these talks during my stay, were both Westerners and had “taken the robes,” the Buddhist expression for becoming a nun or a monk and renouncing the pleasures of the world, thirty to forty years ago. We laughed together about our similar haircuts, and one of the nuns actually did a double take when she saw me, confessing that she thought at first that I was one of them!  We agreed that this haircut, a basic buzz cut, is wonderful, indeed, requiring minimal care and attention, while always looking good. .  The nuns were friendly and down to earth, yet very earnest and sincere in their exposition of Buddhist precepts, and apparently very dedicated to their spiritual lives. They welcomed questions and conversation during mealtimes and were open for consultations and advice.

Looking back at my five days in the monastery, I sense that these were days taking place in a different dimension. This was time out of time.  I noticed that my mind was empty, blank.  No thoughts or worries occupied them.   I knew that my meals would be served (100% strict veg) and all I had to do was to show up. I had no “to do” lists, no tasks or things I had to do. The writing I intended to do I never got around to.  Reading, walking, thinking, breathing, meditating, journaling, looking at the breathtaking scenery and talking filled my days.  Yes, talking.  This was no silent retreat.  While there were people at the monastery who were “in silence”,  doing a private retreat, a group of us, were clearly not, and we happily spent mealtimes, enjoying each other’s company and conversation.  Mauritius, Iran, Germany, New Zealand, South Africa, Brazil, Holland, Australia, and USA, were some of the countries represented.  Much of our conversation centered on Buddhist thought and practice.  There were those who were well versed, in Buddhism and others that were new to this.  Many of the people came to the monastery searching for answers to life challenges such as lost love, choosing a career, and dealing with illness.  Others were spiritual seekers, looking for answers to the mystery of life. Yet others, like me were simply seeking a peaceful environment, away from the hubbub of life.

Monks at Kopan

The atmosphere in the monastery was one of ease, order, interest, and yes, spirituality. Contemplating the lives of the monks and nuns, it occurred to me, that living a life without family, without responsibility for livelihood, spending large parts of the day in prayer, study and meditation, and living in a community of peers, is a life with far fewer stresses than most of us can imagine.  In this modern age of instant communication and the expectation to be immediately responsive and constantly reactive, our lives are far removed from the measured, ordered, peaceful lives of these monks.  Is it any wonder that the monks had an air of equanimity about them?  Equanimity.  That was the word that immediately came to mind observing the monks, and long before I learned that  Buddha directed his followers to cultivate equanimity (uppekha) along with compassion, joy, and loving kindness, considered the Four Great Virtues.

There is time here to contemplate the meaning of life, the very essence of our beings.  We learn about the basic emotions: anger, jealousy, hate, sadness, love, happiness.  We consider many of the 51 aspects of mental formations.  We learn that karma means cause and effect, and as such according to Buddhist thought, we can impact on what happens in our lives.  Our lives are not totally random, and things don’t just happen to us.  We have a part in them.  Life here in the monastery is pared down to the basics:  simple food and lodging, honest conversation, and straightforward interactions.

How do we take this back into our lives, I ask my favorite nun on the eve of my departure.  You don’t, she says.  You cannot take this experience back into your life.  You take the wisdom you have gleaned from your stay here back into your life.

I think about this.  What wisdom do I take with me?  Firstly, a rededication to slow travel, to appreciating the little things in life that make life worthwhile, to taking time to breathe and smell the flowers, to talk to people, to listen to the quiet.   I take with me an appreciation for how little we need, how things don’t make us happy, how anger is destructive, the importance of stopping and breathing, reconnecting to my body, and observing my mind.    These are the things I take, along with a souvenir picture of Kopan indelibly printed on to the pictures of my mind.  A picture that I can retrieve at a moment’s notice, with a mindful breath in and out, reminding myself that such a place exists in this world. Slow travel at its best.

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Entrance to Kopan Monastery

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