Monastic Interludes: Learning to Chill at the Kopan Monastery
By Gwenyth James
The dull clang of a bell penetrated my consciousness. Morning! In the darkness, I crawled out of bed and pulled on my clothes. Wrapping a shawl close around me, I open the door. A blast of icy air hit me. Through the gloom I glimpsed phantoms disappearing into the mist–people on their way to meditation. I was in Kopan Monastery, a Buddhist monastery just outside Kathmandu. Together with 300 other Europeans, I had joined a month-long meditation course. It was to be a unique experience and I had high hopes that at the end I’d be calm, tranquil and stress free.The Kopan Monastery was surrounded by a desperately poor village–a dirty shantytown of flimsy shelters immersed in the unmistakable stench of dysentery.
At the end of the dirt road, the huge gates of the monastery open to reveal study buildings, immaculate temples and verdant gardens–a sanctuary of peace and beauty in a pestilent world. The monastery is home to over 300 monks, and while we saw little of them during our course, we were aware of them studying during the day and chanting their prayers in the mornings and evenings.
Upon arrival at the monastery, I was assigned to a dormitory room with a communal bathroom and a non-functioning solar shower. Starting at 4.30am, the day was broken into 5 meditation sessions: early morning, morning, afternoon, evening and night. Each session was 2 hours. Between sessions, there were discussion groups, washing, chores and helping each other.
From the start, we had to abide by the monastery’s rules: no killing, stealing, lying, alcohol, smoking or sexual activity. In addition, during the course, we could not leave the monastery grounds, receive or make telephone calls or receive or send mail.
On the first day of the course, the rules were increased when we were requested not to disturb the monks, listen to music, read books (unless related meditation), gossip, sing, dance or wear jewelry, make-up or perfume. In the final 2 weeks, we were required to conform to the austere monastic routine: eating once a day (lunch), silence from waking until after lunch and participation in all meditation sessions.
The intent of the rules, which seemed harsh, was to simplify our lives by stripping away distractions. We were assured that this, in turn, would result in the mind becoming calm and tranquil. Great! That was what I came for! However, I quickly discovered that when sitting on a hard cushion on the cold floor, the slippery mind is wonderfully creative: random thoughts and daydreams fill the void left by distractions. Every emotion seems to rise–except calmness and tranquility!
The course taught the way to be free from suffering–or, as Buddhists understand it, the path to enlightenment. Each day, we were led through a series of meditations identifying the causes of our suffering and how to be freed from them.
We grappled with concepts foreign to our hedonistic lives–renunciation of our possessions, giving without expecting something in return, loving without expecting to be loved back and developing compassion that springs from the deepest wish to see every single living thing–even our worst enemy– free from their sufferings too. These, we were assured, were the basis of happiness, calmness and tranquility.
Days passed…many people left the course because of sickness or unwillingness to cope with the harsh conditions or rigorous regime. Those who remained fluctuated between fleeting moments of peacefulness and being tired, hungry or cold. Rather than becoming easier, meditation became increasingly difficult. My mind seemed like a chaotic nightmare of fractured thoughts. Calmness and tranquility seemed an elusive dream. The harder I tried to concentrate on the meditation topic and quiet the thoughts, the more my mind rioted. It was cold comfort when the teacher advised that this was totally normal–and that calmness and tranquility can take years of practice to achieve!
The course ended. To celebrate, we joined the monks in the main temple and entertained them with European songs and dances. Then, we shared a huge banquet accompanied by much laughter. The festival culminated with the monks performing highly energetic and vibrant Buddhist dances.
After four long weeks, it was time to leave the monastery. Like a moth emerging from a cocoon, I made my way back to Kathmandu. The traffic sounds jarred my ears, shops overflowing with colorful goods assaulted my eyes and the myriad of aromas offended my nose. Dazed, I wandered the city like a zombie. Suddenly, I realized the problem: a fragile calmness had secretly developed in my mind–and it was being disturbed! Maybe, if I just spent another month meditating…
A number of monasteries in the Boudha Nath and Swayambu area (just outside Kathmandu) provide meditation courses for Europeans including:
Ka Nying Shedrup Ling
Thrangu Tashi Choling
Many lesser known monasteries also offer short courses. The best place to discover what is available is on the bulletin board at the Bir Restaurant (close to the Sherpa Monastery in Boudha Nath). Also, the Himalayan Yogic Institute and Kathmandu Buddhist Centre, both in the centre of Kathmandu, offer courses ranging from a single day to several days. In addition, potential participants should ensure that a translator will be available to translate the instructions from Tibetan or that the instructions will be given in a European language.
A starting point for friends and visitors to Kopan monastery or anyone who has an interest in Buddhism, Nepal, or meditation retreats is buddhist.ca
MONASTERY COURSES IN NEPAL
Many monasteries in the Kathmandu area offer meditation courses. The conditions and cost of the courses vary significantly between monasteries and range from full live-in, 6-week courses (priced at over US$500) to single day courses that may be free. Many monasteries also require participants to provide a donation of money. The amenities available in monasteries also vary significantly from self-contained rooms to dormitory accommodation with communal toilets to “bring your own tent.”
Situated close to Bhoudha Nath Stupa, Kopan holds meditation courses through out the year. Courses range in duration from 7 to 10 days and are usually held in March, April, May, June, September and October. A one-month course is held in November.
All courses are either taught in English or translated into English. In addition, translators are available for a number of other European languages during the November course. Prices vary depending on the length of the course and the type of accommodation required. The maximum cost is approximately US$300 for the one-month course (tuition only — accommodation is extra.)
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