Sunday, January 28, 2018

Kopan Monastery — High Above it All.

This is a challenging blog to write because basically it is about silence.

 I wish you could have joined me to sit high above the fray. In Kathmandu, below this hill, the festival day of Laxmi was  erupting. Lights, music, gaiety, with people going door to door performing. I missed it all by leaving Eco-Organics Farm for this five day retreat.

Why did I choose Kopan, a Tibetan Buddhist Monastery? 

Well, I think it chose me. My hotel manager, Prakesh, had felt very guilty about stranding me at the airport upon my arrival to Kathmandu. No driver as promised. No answer on the phone. No Nepali money to pay a taxi driver. No functioning ATM to get Nepali money … So, he helped me by finding Eco-Organics Farm and now this Kopan Monastery. His kind aid more than compensated for my initial confusion and fear!

It felt good to sit here, high above it all. The chaos, farm difficulties, Nepali woes ... far below.

What did I gain from this retreat? In order of pleasure: a sit down toilet! A room to myself with no rats leaving droppings or goats being birthed or precarious paths to a hole in the floor toilet in the middle of the night. A shower!!!  Reliably filtered water! And most of all protein! Yay tofu!!!

I know it sounds like I’m grumpy about the farm living situations which I indeed chose. Sorry, but the contrast was lovely and proved how, even though I’m a great camper and farm girl, I am addicted to certain Western cleanliness standards. I’m a relative wimp, I confess.

But the 5 days wasn’t really about Kathy feeling clean. It was about working with my reactions with filth or anything else objectionable in life. The title of the retreat was “Transforming Problems into Happiness” by Geshe Losang Sherab. That’s promising a lot!

I won’t subject you to Tibetan Buddhist philosophy, much of which was dense, intellectual and challenging. An easier read, but still potent, is Pema Chodren’s book, “Start Where You Are.” Basically the teaching is about using whatever hits you in life or disgruntles, disgusts, or confuses you as the path for awakening. Awakening to what? To what all spiritual teachings point to —the “two wings of the bird” — wisdom and compassion. So, stop griping, Kathy. Use your difficulties. Say “thank you” to them and to the difficult people who are your “teachers.”

Easier said than done, of course. But rather than being theoretical, the teachings were practical, doable and effective. Again, Pema Chodren translates the Seven Point Mind Training and the “tonglen” practice well for us Westerners.

What else did I love about this retreat, other than the room, protein and guidance? The people. 

We gathered from around the world. Kopan is a famous draw and people fly in from everywhere.  I received so much support from Americans, Canadians, Germans, Indians … and I just have to recall their sincere faces to remember the practices. Here is my small discussion group.

Our larger group:

I think you would love the sight of these  monks playing soccer, their robes hiked up for better running. And the little ones helping each other with laundry chores, arms around each other like brothers, or chanting in unison. When we asked our monk teacher how they come to arrive at the monastery, he said they were allowed to stay only after great consideration. If it wasn’t a good fit they were sent home to their families. If they wanted to leave at any time, no problem. But for a boy from a poor village, it was a great chance for a good education in a loving and healthy environment.

The monks always seemed to be cheerful, helpful and studious.

Some of the customs might seem odd. 

When a Rinpoche died the search was on for his reincarnation. And here this little boy is, loved and guided. (And free to leave, as one did years ago, to become a film director in Spain.)

 Living one’s whole life in a monastery or nunnery did seem restrictive to me, the Westerner who loves her freedom. But how free is the mind, attached to wanting stuff, her identity, her small circle of friends? 

One morning practice really made me think. A nun had been doing it for two hours each morning for 20 years and I joined her. In the Lama’s quarters we meditatively emptied several hundred small glass bowls of water— sending prayers down the sewer— carefully dried them, filled them with clean water, and replaced them in meticulous order — in front of flowers, statues, and holy paintings. Silently, reverently, relating to the most essential element of life as sacred. Focused yet liberating…

Kopan reminded me of practices I did know but wasn’t doing. 

Up to this point Nepal had been both rewarding and difficult for me. Yet I was just living, experiencing, even suffering but not doing any spiritual practices consistently! It’s natural to try to control things. It’s easy to forget that everything in this physical and emotional plane changes. Nothing lasts. Not the difficulties or the joy. Here I was reminded that when it’s hard, send yourself compassion and then extend it to all who suffer in the same way. It makes you part of a greater whole. When it’s easy, instead of holding that positive experience close to your chest, send that bounty and happiness to all. Get out of way of your small self-absorbed self — connect with the largeness of the earth, all that lives, your own potential. Be grateful for each day and vow to use it well.

Kopan’s reminders were many.

Of beauty.

 Memories of meditating with friends.

Simple Buddhist vows, over 2400 years old:

Wisdom through the years:

And a living teacher:

Reminders to pray:

And memories of the deep voice of our teacher, who performed these vocals for us:


Reminded and fortified I was ready to reenter the world. No matter how clean the environment, could I remember to appreciate water as sacred? Would I encounter difficulties in life with which to practice? (Duh!) 

Would there be a few minutes each morning at this next farm to meditate? To start each day in a quiet way, to be silent, like my friend here?

Even though I have vowed not to carry books around the world,  I am bringing this one out of the monastery bookstore — “Transforming Problems into Happiness” by Lama Zopa Rinpoche, that is until I’ve mastered the practices (Ha!). 

And as a bookmark a postcard of a gaggle of giggling little monks reminding me— “If you can solve the problem then what is the need of worrying? If you cannot solve it, then what is the need of worrying?”

Remembering the view, high above it all, I’m so grateful for this time apart!

So, rested, renewed and reminded —down the hill, back down into the world, to Everything Organic Farm, and a home-stay with the farm manager Shyam...

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