This story was originally published in the Australian Yoga Journal.
If Buddhism can be defined as a study into one’s own mind, the idea of sitting down and doing it for 10 days can seem quite daunting. But that’s exactly what I’ll be doing at the Kopan monastery in Nepal where I’ll spend my time in reflection, meditation, teachings and philosophical discussions. Daunting, yes, but it also turns out to be one of the most rewarding experiences of my life.
The Kopan monastery sits on a hill overlooking the pretty, albeit smoggy, Kathmandu valley. It’s been there since 1969 when Tibetan refugee Lama Thubten Yeshe along with his chief disciple Lama Thubten Zopa Rinpoche began teaching Westerners Buddhism in the Mahayana tradition. The teachings evolved into a 10 day course, held regularly throughout the year. Since then, Kopan has grown and now houses two ornately decorated gompas (meditation halls), simple accommodation for over 350 monks and hundreds of students, a library and a haphazard collection of farm animals saved from the slaughterhouse by the head Lama. The grounds centre around a beautiful white stupa, a Buddhist place for prayers and reflection, while the gardens are extensive, with flowing green lawns, water fountains and bright pink bougainvillea.
The course I attend attracts about 80 people of all ages, from all walks of life and from just about every country I can think of. My room mate is Russian and hardly speaks a word of English, but since we’re encouraged to spend as much time in silence as possible, not speaking the same language makes this easier! Some talking is allowed during the day for the first 8 days of the course. However, the final 2 days are conducted in total silence. As someone who would generally be considered capable of talking underwater with a mouth full of marbles, I’m amazed at how well I adapt to the silence. I actually find it incredibly peaceful not having to worry about engaging in small talk, making friends or even observing social niceties. The silence really allows me to ‘go inside’ and focus on what I’m here for: to learn about and train my mind.
The course follows a similar schedule each day; morning meditation, teachings, group discussions, question time and evening meditation with meal breaks in between. I also manage to fit in a 5am yoga practice most days, going through my asanas as I watch the sun slide up over the valley.
Since many in the group have never meditated before and aren’t used to sitting for long periods, our teacher, Tim, allows us to move every 15 minutes or so. As the course progresses, the time is lengthened until we are sitting for 45 minutes without moving. Tim isn’t a monk and when he isn’t teaching meditation he works in a restaurant in his homeland of Belgium. I find this quite useful to know because it makes it seem more attainable that I too can fit meditation into my daily life when I return home.
The meditations are generally divided into single pointed, which involves concentrating the mind on a single object, and analytical, which is the study of the mind’s perceptions of a particular subject.
The single pointed meditations often start with a visualisation of breathing in white light, representing all that is good; compassion, wisdom and love then breathing out black smoke, representing all the bad; jealousy, anger, hatred, attachment and ignorance. The next step is to clear the mind. We are asked to visualise it as the sky: open, expansive, limitless. The thoughts are like the clouds, they may pass through the sky, but they are unable to change the true essence of the sky. Once our minds are clear, we are asked to visualise a single object, such as the face of the Buddha and to keep coming back to that image again and again when our minds wander.
In the afternoons, we do analytical meditations where we meditate on a particular subject, for example, equanimity. Tim asks us to picture someone we do not like, observe the emotions that brings up, but not attach ourselves to them. Then he asks us to think about someone we love, again observing the emotions that come up. He then instructs us to see the two people side by side and eventually encourages us to realise that one person is not good and the other bad, it is simply our perception of them that is different. Tim asks us to investigate the possibility that we are all equal in wanting happiness and not wanting suffering. Therefore, there is no reason to think that the freedom from suffering and happiness of the person we love are more important than those of the person who disturbs us.
Our main teacher for the course is a Swedish nun named Ani Karen who is fairly no-nonsense with a dry sense of humour. The first thing she says to us is “We are not here to convince you, we are only here to show you the path.” This is one of the things that draws me to learn more about Buddhism. Buddha is quoted as saying “Do not blindly believe what I say. Don't believe me because others convince you of my words. Find out for yourself what is truth, what is real.” Throughout the course, this is what I try to do; ask questions, reflect and expand on the answers and see what resonates with me and what doesn’t.
Ani Karen teaches that Buddhists believe suffering comes from desire and the need for humans to seek outside themselves to find happiness. She talks about our attachment to our desires and the suffering that causes our minds. She tells us that even once we possess the thing we had desired, we are still not happy because ultimately that thing changes, or we start desiring something else and the suffering then begins again.
We also receive teachings from a rather jolly Tibetan Lama on topics such as impermanence, death, attachment, consciousness, reincarnation, karma and compassion. The topic that causes the most confusion among the participants is reincarnation. The Mahayana tradition links reincarnation with our karma, which is described as cause and effect. Tibetan Buddhists believe that after we die, our essential nature is reincarnated in a new body and this keeps happening over and over until we achieve enlightenment. They believe that our karma is what affects how we will be reincarnated in the next life. For instance, if we do very bad deeds, we could come back as an animal and may spend aeons as an animal until we can improve our karma to be reborn as a human. Thus, our karma is not just from deeds we have performed in this life, but every other before it.
The other teaching which causes some great discomfort is concerning death. “You are all going to die”, says the Lama with a big smile on his face. And while this is irrefutably true, it’s very confronting for many people to hear. But rather than finding the idea of death depressing, I actually find it quite uplifting. What Buddhism teaches is that no matter how rich, how powerful or even how healthy a person is, it is a certainty that they will die. The only thing we don’t know is when. And so, we are encouraged to value the life we’ve been given, to make the most of living every day and not to put things off until later in life, since later may never come.
After the teachings, we break off into discussion groups, and this becomes one of my favourite parts of the day at Kopan. Not only do I get to talk, but I get to listen to others’ views on the topics we’ve been studying. I find it really gives me a fresh perspective on particular subjects and others often come up with points I may not have thought of. This gives me a chance to challenge my own beliefs and work out what rings true for me.
At the end of the course, we have the chance to take refuge, which is essentially becoming a Buddhist and being blessed by one of the head Lamas. Taking refuge involves promising to adhere to some or all of the 5 Precepts – to refrain from killing, stealing, lying, sexual misconduct and drinking and smoking. But while many of the teachings really resonate with me, I realise I’m not quite ready to vow never to swat another mosquito or drink another glass of Sem Sav. Maybe I’ll achieve that in my next life.
Note: The monastery was damaged in the April 2015 earthquake. The Chenrezig gompa will have to be demolished and rebuilt. However, Buddhism courses are still running.
Check out www.kopanmonastery.com