Kopan Monastery – November course: part 2. The course and life in a monastery

1,5 years have passed since I did the one month November course at Kopan monastery. For a little while I was wondering whether I would and/or even should finish this blog post – but going through my photos, my notes and even more important my memories I decided it would be a shame not to work through everything I experienced and share it with those interested.

Arrival

One the way to Kathmandu I stopped for one night in Delhi  – having my usual Thali in one of my favourite rooftop bars in Paharganj, plus getting – and this is also a must-do now when I am in Delhi – my mehndi (henna tattoo) done…

 

 

When I reached Kathmandu the next day I was still jet lagged and honestly spoken not really ready for the experience. There was the usual chaos, which this time was amplified by a fuel crisis that Nepal experienced just months after the devastating earthquake of April 2015 – which killed 9000, injured nearly 22000 and left around 2,5 million people displaced. Although the Western media covered the earthquake extensively, one could hardly find any information on the fuel crisis – which had been  caused by an almost complete blockage of trucks entering landlocked Nepal from India (which until then was the sole provider of petroleum to Nepal). The government of Nepal accused India of imposing the blockade – and India obviously denied these allegations. Anyway, I do not want to go further into politics here – but it caused an economic and humanitarian crisis while the country was trying to recover from damage and trauma caused by the earthquake. For me this resulted in an increased taxi fare (equalling almost Western taxi fares). The driver told me that he had to queue up for 5 days to get petrol for his car and we saw long lines of cars queuing up in front of petrol stations.

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And a bit of airport craziness

Kopan

In order for you to get an idea of where I actually was – here are some impressions. Kopan monastery is a Buddhist monastery in the Tibetan tradition. It is situated on a hill overlooking the Kathmandu valley. Below you see the main gompa, some stupas and the magnificent view.

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As you might be able to see in the pictures air pollution was really bad. Although Kathmandu’s air quality is already rather notorious (dubbed the 7th most polluted city in the world) the ongoing fuel crisis worsened the situation, as people started using firewood instead of petrol.

Kopan had also been affected by the earthquake. While the main gompa (meditation room) was still intact (we did however see some cracks in the walls) the smaller gompa I had been staying in in 2012 had been completely destroyed. There were a few small tremors during the November course – which kind of made many of us a bit nervous (thinking about those cracks in the wall…).

Earthquake or not – boys, not matter what they wear, will be boys

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Accommodation and Food

Kopan offers a range of accommodation options (rather surprising for a monastery): single rooms with ensuite or without, doubles and if you are on a tight budget and/or enjoy some company at night then you have the chance to book a bed in a dormitory – which I did. Probably more so out of economic reasons. While some of the private rooms were really nice, many of the dormitories were quite basic. At least the one I stayed in was. It was a dark cold place, in which they had put 5 beds with very thin mattresses (that made me wake up the first couple of nights in pain). Me and my roommates lovingly referred to it as: the dungeon. However: 5 people in a room, 20-30 people sharing 2 toilets and showers and I slept better than when I was at home. Oh – I should mention that the showers were solar-powered. Hence, we only got hot water when it was sunny and only the first few people in line were lucky – which resulted in a bit of a rush after breakfast. However, as humans always try to improve their situations, I soon discovered some additional sanitary facilities in the boys quarter – hot water and not 5 people waiting in front of the toilet while you are trying to get a bit of privacy….yay!

Unfortunately I did not take any pictures of our room – but this is, in general, what a room looked like – just imagine ours with much less light.

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And this is us having a little video session in the Dungeon (obviously all in silence) and yes, it was cold (temperatures dropped to around 5C at night).

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And now lets talk about food – cause this is one of the most exciting things at Kopan – at least for me. The food is all vegetarian and it is simply amazing!!! While breakfast (usually porridge and bread) and dinner (soup and bread) were rather basic, lunch was one of my daily highlights (why is it that food makes me so happy?) However, I was not the only one who felt that way. Close to lunchtime – the teachings were not yet finished – the first people got up and sneaked out so they could be the first ones to attack the buffet. And whereas you saw many people often doing walking meditation (which implies walking very slowly and attentively) here it seemed to be rather running meditation. It got so bad that our teacher Don had to address this issue in class, as people loaded so much food on their plates (which quite often they did not even manage to finish) that the ones who arrived a bit late had very limited choices. Funny enough that this happened in a monastery – where people wanted to learn about kindness and compassion – which quite obviously already stopped when lunch was being served. As I found myself stressing over lunch (would the really tasty dishes still be there when I got there – should I get up and run as well) and I did not want myself to become a victim of my greed I started forcing myself to be one of the last ones in the queue – and believe me – that was a rather difficult task – cause I LOVED the food and I really wanted to be the first in line… Oh and by the way, things did not get better after 2 weeks into the course when we only got served one meal a day. When I initially found out I almost wanted to cry – one meal a day, I mean – hello??!!. The only good news was: it was lunch – AND: the shop would still be open 😉

food

Schedule:

Here the daily schedule (which was slightly altered several times during the course)

  • 5:30 am Prostration
  • 6.30 am Morning meditation
  • 7.30 am Breakfast
  • 9.00am Teaching
  • 11.30 Lunch
  • 2.00 pm Discussion group
  • 3.30pm Teaching
  • 5.00 pm Tea break
  • 6 .00pm Lam Rim meditation
  • 7.00pm Dinner
  • 8.00pm Evening meditation.

Yeah – and now you can guess how many times I made it to the prostration class? Exactly: once. On the first day. Ani Karin mentioned that doing prostrations was a great exercise to weaken the ego ( Tibetans believe they accumulate good karma by doing prostrations) but I had trouble comprehending how throwing myself on the ground would actually help me doing this – plus other people’s bottoms right in front of my face did not really help me relax (maybe this would have actually helped with my ego) . Quite a few people used it as an exercise session (that is why entering the monastery after the prostration class usually felt like entering a sauna) – one of them told me that he did prostrations first (like push-ups) and then started running up and down the hill for the next 30 min – just to get his exercise in. I used it as extra sleeping time. Oh, and for those of you who do not know what prostrations are: Prostration is the placement of the body in a reverentially or submissively prone position as a gesture. Tibetan pilgrims however are famous for prostrating all the way from their home to Lhasa, sometimes a distance over 2000 km, which takes them several years to complete. My sporty friends would be quite envious, I guess.

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Rules:

Obviously they had a whole set of rules and guidelines in the monastery. And the rules must be obeyed… well, i think most of the rules did make sense. After all, we came all the way to Nepal to experience and learn something new and not do the stuff we do at home. However, a month can be long and sometimes we are all just a little too human to be perfect…Now lets look at the course guidelines and rules and I might tell you which ones I had some difficulties keeping:

1. Attendance at all course sessions is mandatory. This includes meditation sessions and discussion group. If you cannot attend a session because of illness, please contact your group leader, or the course coordinator.  I did sneak out a few times during the prayer sessions and during some meditation sessions (and also during the teachings… oh dear) in which my mind was chasing every single distraction possible. Even a little ant crawling on the floor could turn into the most fascinating event.

2. Keep silence from 10 pm in the evening until you have finished your lunch. Breakfast and lunch are eaten in silence. This practice helps to focus one’s attention and to develop outer and inner awareness. Well, what can I say. The first two weeks or so went pretty well (and I did like the silence). But starting from week three this somehow changed a bit – now it seemed you sometimes had to hide somewhere (a difficult task when you are with 200 + people in a monastery) to find some silence. Oh – and being in a dormitory with 3 other girls makes it also almost impossible to keep silence. It was funny to see that their minds were wandering just as bad as mine: ‘did you see how hot xyz looked today in this orange fleece?’ 🙂 

3. Stay inside the monastery grounds throughout the course. I already broke this one on day two – oh dear – when I went for a walk down to Boudha. It was actually a really nice walk. 

4. Please respect the monks and their vows. Do not distract them from their studies or work. Do not visit the monks in their room, or allow them to visit your room. Do not encourage the monks to break their monastic rules. No problem, whatever that means…

5. Keep the five precepts. They are: no killing, stealing, lying, sexual activity, no tobacco, alcohol or illegal drugs of any kind. Lets look at this one a bit closer. No KILLING – those of you who are familiar with Buddhism know that this includes all living beings. So, no, I did not kill another human being. But killing included the killing of mosquitoes – which this time was easy to keep, because it was just too cold for these little bastards – whops, I mean beautiful creatures but I remember last time this proved to be a challenge and I was a few times very tempted. We were being told that Lama Zopa, the founder of the monastery and the lama who taught our course for 2 weeks, quite often sat outside wearing no shirt, so that the mosquitoes could actually find happiness by sucking his blood… well, I am not quite there yet… After all it comes down to an eye for an eye ;). No STEALING – as far as I am aware. It was actually great – you could leave your stuff everywhere and when you came back it was still there. LYING? Cannot remember – maybe one of those times when I really had to use the loo and I told people I wanted to relax in the room?! SEXUAL ACTIVITY – was probably rather going on in people’s heads than in real life (probably wild orgies taking place in people’s head during meditation class ;)) And ALCOHOL… well, I do recall that one time – or was it twice that some inner voice (or was it the voices of my discussion group members) lured me outside the monastery premises (where you first had to step through a cloud of smoke, because that is where all the smokers had gathered) into a beautiful bar where they happened to have very tasty Kingfisher beer…. uhm…

6. Check your mobile (cell) phone and other electronic devices in the reception safe at the start of the course. This will help you stay focused on the teachings. If you use your mobile as alarm, then we request you to remove the sim card and store it in the reception. And another tricky one – oh dear… well, so one day  I went for a little walk ( apparently we were allowed little walks around the monastery). And I came across this beautiful little coffee shop which served delicious ginger lemon honey tea. And they happened to have internet. Funny enough this place – besides its remote location – was usually packed with rather familiar faces – who all for some reason had kind of forgotten to leave their mobile phone in the monastery…. aren’t we all just very human?

7. Do not bring any non-Dharma reading material, radio, or computer to your room, but store it in the safe in the reception. You can use an mp3 player for recording the teachings, but please do not play music. Well, I did listen to Mozart a few times in class – does that count as Dharma music? 

8. Men and women are accommodated in separate rooms. Please do not visit the rooms of the opposite sex. If you are attending as a couple, we suggest you sit separately in the meditation hall. Done. Boys dormitories – I think I can resist that temptation 🙂 Oh, but I definitely used the bathrooms there…

9. Your dress should be loose, simple, comfortable and appropriate for a monastic environment. Please adhere to our suggested dress code. Done – except of the one time when this girl approached me and whispered: “you have a hole in your pants”. I thanked her but obviously did not think it could be so bad. So later I went to my room to check only to find out that actually the hole was not only a hole – but there was not much fabric left that could have actually covered my bottom. I wondered for how long I had been walking around like this… hopefully by doing this I did not cause any monks to break any monastic rules… 

People:

First of all it should be mentioned that around 230 people were on the course. And they came from all over the world. I met Brazilians, Spanish, Dutch, English, American, Russian, Israeli, Singaporean, Australian, Tunisian, Indian, Nepali – even a Georgian girl was on the course (where is Georgia again?!) and many more nationalities. There were all different ages to be found on this course. Some people decided to join this course at a tender age of 18 and others were already in their 70s. There were doctors, engineers, scientists, pensioners, students, managers, nurses, psychologists, travellers, mountaineers, teachers (LOTS yoga and meditation teachers)… the list goes on and on. There were people who worked with these Buddhist concepts for the first time and there were people who had attended courses and teachings for years or even lead Buddhist centres around the world. There were people who were quite critical of the teachings and there were people who were super spiritual and talked about their life in samsara. There were extroverts, there were introverts. The ones with the amazing stories, the ones you just like, the ones you find super annoying, the ones who ask 5 million questions in class no one really else is interested in, the ones who wanted to be first in line for lunch (incl. me – at least secretly), the ones who decided to be silent throughout the course and when you failed to see the silent batch they were wearing brought you in these awkward situations. To summarise, a lot of different people could be found on the November Course – and a lot of interesting people – for my personal and very subjective taste. There were a few similarities though too: a certain educational and economic standard (a “poor” Indian or African person was not attending) and a certain openness and interest in spirituality and how else one could look at the world.

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Teachers:

A good thing about the Kopan November course is that you get to experience different teachers. Our main teacher was Don: American and an ardent follower of Tibetan Buddhism for many years. He even held a Master degree in Buddhist studies. He mentioned at some point that his spiritual journey began after a traumatic event in his life – uhmm… sounds familiar? Otherwise a very gentle soul who tried very hard to please each and every participant. And that surely was not an easy thing. He always seemed incredibly cheerful and at peace- I guess the benefits of his work. The only thing which made it sometimes difficult to follow his teachings for me was his rather monotonous voice. In ‘normal’ life this would probably not have had any effect on me concentrating, but when you listen to someone a few hours every day for 30 days in a row your mind – or at least my mind, occasionally was DESPERATELY looking for distractions.

Then there was Lama Zopa Rinpoche, one of the founders of Kopan monastery. Well, what to say about Lama Zopa. Born in the Mount Everest region in 1946, Rinpoche was recognized soon afterwards as the reincarnation of the great yogi Kunsang Yeshe. First of all, he seems to be a very kind person.  He apparently had a stroke a few years ago which affects his speech and walking. What is most striking about Lama Zopa is his big heart for animals. Not only does he let mosquitoes feed on his blood, he also apparently feeds ants and according to his website liberated 200,000,000 animals (mosquitoes and ants might be included in this count). What was challenging was to follow his teachings – I, for my part (and I heard a few other people saying similar things), were quite often not sure whether he was either a bit crazy, his stroke had affected somehow his brain – or whether we were just too stupid to understand his teachings. Our discussion group leader said we might not be ready for the teachings. Why he was occasionally speaking in tongues – no one knows.

Khen Rinpoche, the current abbot of Kopan. Very gentle, very sweet and as from my experience often found in Tibetan monks – extremely humble. When answering a question he usually started with “I don’t know..” before eventually giving an answer.

Ani (stands for nun in Tibetan) Karin – the Swedish nun I already knew from last time. Apparently she came to Nepal in the 70s, was drawn to the monks’ chanting, became a nun and has stayed there ever since then.

Venerable Tinggao, an Israeli monk, who was very difficult to understand. And a Brazilian nun, whose name I have forgotten.

A very international monastery 🙂

From left to right: Lama Zopa Rinpoche, Khen Rinpoche and Don

Group Discussion

My favourite part of the day was the group discussion. On the first day 10 people were picked randomly and these 10 people formed a so-called discussion group which would meet almost every day at 2pm to discuss topics we had heard about during the teaching or any other questions/issues. Funny enough, when the head nun picked the group members my mind was quick to make judgements about people I had never met. It was like: Oh yes, please, let her be in my group – she seems to be funny. And: Thank God, I am not in a group with this lady  -she seems so annoying. Jeez… and I always thought I was such an open-minded person…..

I ended up in a fabulous group though. Different nationalities, different ages, different opinions and different experiences and characters and some wonderful and also quite often very amusing discussions.

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Meditations:

As you could see from the schedule we had three meditation sessions each day. I think meditation practice is great. To understand the way your mind works, to become the master of your mind, I find, are some of the most important skills you can learn in life. For those of you who have practised meditation and know it does not really mean sitting on your bottom while listening to relaxing music, you might know that it can be rather challenging. At least it was for me. Quite often the way our mind works is described as a monkey that jumps from tree to tree. And oh yes, that was what my mind was doing, for sure. It was as if my mind said: OK, Verena, you must be joking – focussing on the breath…how ridiculous. But look, over there: have you noticed that person’s haircut. Wow, what was he thinking? blablabla…  I tell you what, one thing I definitely found out is: the mind always finds something which can be turned into quite a story…

Analytical and visualisations were a bit easier to do.. at least the mind had something to do while you were analysing a topic (like our favourite topic death) or visualising Buddha or your family.

Anyway, at some point I thought it would be interesting to actually write down all the thoughts that crossed my mind while trying to meditate, in order for me to find out how my mind works and yeah, just to see what the crazy monkey is up to now… and surprise, surprise – a lot of very deep and interesting thoughts crossed my mind – just saying…;)

Here is what my mind produced in 20 min during meditation class:

  • People are coughing – “Oh no.. I hope I am not getting sick. Why on earth is he sitting right next to me. I need to move to another seat during the break.”
  • “I need to charge my MP3 player”
  • noticing a hole in meditation cushion – “I wonder what material that cushion is made of? Might be rather crappy quality…”
  • “How can I actually help my roommate who fancies this one guy in my discussion group”?
  • “Uhm… what should I tell people in my discussion group later – what subjects could be interesting to discuss. Oh, I definitely have to tell them about this new insight on death I gained. I am sure they will love it and think I am great.”
  • “Shut up, ego”
  • itchy nose
  • “How funny would it be to tell my group mates about my roommate fancying someone in the group”
  • “How annoying is this stopwatch counting down the 20 min for this exercise. I should just switch it off… “
  • “I really need to figure out when I can charge my MP3 player!”
  • actively waiting (hoping) for thoughts to arrive I can write down. “Come on thoughts, usually you are so active, what is going on now when I need you…?”
  • back pain. “I hate meditation. When is this over?”
  • noticing dirty feet of guy in front of me
  • regretting that I don’t have my MP3 player cause I don’t understand the teacher. “Damn, I should have charged my MP3 player before coming to class”
  • getting irritated by the dirty feet “YUK”
  • “I am soo hungry, should I eat bread or porridge for breakfast? – oh and I have to make sure I charge my MP3 player “
  • Getting irritated by the chanting of the teacher. “He has such a weird voice – he should not be chanting”
  • Comparing his chanting with Ani Karin’s and getting more annoyed. “Next time he is chanting I will just leave the room”

Yes, as you can see meditation works so far really well…

Seems at least this dog found peace… 

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To be continued….

 

 

 

 

 

2 thoughts on “Kopan Monastery – November course: part 2. The course and life in a monastery

  1. Donnerwetter! du wirst ja ein richtiger Journalist! ein recht vollständiges bild von kopan monastery.
    gefällt mir sehr, deine selbstbeherrschung bezüglich mittag essen: nicht leicht sich zurück zu halten wenn mann am liebsten als erster am buffet sein möchte. die hausregeln sind auch recht interessant. was macht man wenn man ein auge auf einen seminar teilnehmer geworfen hat, wie die unglückliche in deiner group discussion runde? oder wenn es um einen wohl gebauten monk geht???? deine gedanken beim meditieren sind amüsant. ja, unser gehirn ist einer rumpelkammer ähnlich. ich denke immer dass wir zum grossen teil nicht selber denken sondern von unserem gehirn gedacht werden. aber das hast du ja zur genüge selber erkannt.
    das chaos im kathmandu airport muss ganz schön stressig gewesen sein. da hätt ich gleich wieder meinen ausschlag gekriegt!
    das essen sieht übrigends delicious aus. man möchte gleich anfangen damit!
    und die beschreibung der teilnehmer! kein wunder du hattest danach deinen wüschten traum, du wolltest nicht zurück ins rat race!
    alles in allem, ein ganz toller beitrag, verena.
    danke!

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  2. Ohhh my days you completely rook me back. I felt my self sitting outside the canteen with a huge plate of food ❤ Cant believe it was a year and a half ago! Thank you for bringing back those memories. And making me laugh 😉 Hope you’re well! Xx

    Like

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