Kopan Monastery- November Course: Part 4. The top 10 things I learnt at Kopan monastery

We all know these days people like it easy and quick, especially when it comes to information. Sometimes easy and quick might be great, but sometimes it might also be beneficial to dig a bit deeper – to understand the underlying dynamics, to look at the bigger picture. But obviously in a time when we are bombarded with new information via social media and the internet, where so many fascinating information are easily accessible (or how else would we know what Justin Bieber wore yesterday) we often lack the patience or simply are just not willing to allocate more time towards a deeper exploration.  I recently came across a newspaper that told you next to the headline the estimated reading time of the article?! I always thought that if something interests me, the time I put into it does not really matter… but anyway, back to my article 🙂

Now, I have come across quite a few websites that publish their content in this quick fix manner. Like: the top 10 things to do in Ulaanbataar, the top 10 things you must know about saving for the future, the top 10 dumbest deaths of all time, the top 10 things not to do on a first date (if you want a second) — obviously, I checked out all of these myself (except no. 2 – planning for the future is not really my strength) ;). Anyway, this inspired me to do a top 10 things I learnt at Kopan monastery blog article. Just to try once the quick fix method. Enjoy.

  1. Humans are imperfect 

I know this one comes as a surprise. But isn’t it sometimes that we scroll through someone’s Facebook profile or we read someone’s biography or talk to one of our friends and we think: yeah, they have it all figure out – their life is perfect. And then when we get to know them better we realise: Oh damn, they are just like me – they have their insecurities, their fears and sometimes are still haunted by their own inner hurt child. So, in a way that makes us feel less alone in our own little imperfect world. Now, OK, Verena, what does that have to do with the November course at Kopan? Well, spending one month in a monastery without the usual distractions (OK, forget about the two times I ended up in the bar with the yummy beers) leaves you with a lot of time to think about your own life AND a lot of time to share your thoughts with people who have been doing exactly the same thing. So, whether you talk to a famous physicist who is just as confused about life or witness people struggle with their food envy (yeah, my favourite subject, I know ;)) or hear a story of the head nun being the first to jump up and run in panic for the doors when there was an earthquake – it just shows: we might have (kind of) mastered one skill but we will always remain imperfect in so many others.

2.  Food makes people happy 

It seems I cannot say this often enough but it just seems to be so true. AND: it makes other living creature supposedly just as happy.  Have you ever witnessed a dog observing the steak you are just about to throw on the BBQ or an elephant who has spotted the bananas in your hands…

 3.  The value of a community

We are social animals. The first one who I have heard saying this sentence was HH Dalai Lama. But hey, the Dalai Lama was certainly not the first one who had these thoughts. Just read what Aristoteles had to say:

“Man is by nature a social animal; an individual who is unsocial naturally and not accidentally is either beneath our notice or more than human. Society is something that precedes the individual. Anyone who either cannot lead the common life or is so self-sufficient as not to need to, and therefore does not partake of society, is either a beast or a god. ”

OK, the bad news is: it seems I am not a god 😦 – but also not a beast :). Although I do not consider myself as overly social, I do have to say that I highly value being surrounded by a strong community. And this is one of the things I valued the most about my Kopan experience: the community. A group of more or less like-minded people. People who were willing to openly speak about their joys and sorrows, their dreams and their fears – about rising and falling. People who dared to be vulnerable. But also a group of people you can just hang out with spontaneously without having to arrange a meeting days or even weeks in advance because of your/their very hectic life and full schedule (I remember one of my Tibetan friends who responded when I asked him whether he would like to live in the west with: oh, you and your hi and bye culture – no, I do not like this). And this is, in my humble opinion, also one of the things that lacks especially Western societies: This sense of community, this sense of belonging.

4. Getting up at 5:30am every day is possible

I know it is hard to believe but damn, it is possible. However, even though it is doable, for me it is still not overly enjoyable. The thing is, it seems my body and even more so my brain does just not work at such an early hour. It usually takes around an hour or two (coffee might accelerate that process) before I can finally use my brain and am able to form sentences in a way that people actually get an idea of what I am trying to say.

5. Many girls wear black leggins

Yeah – this may come as a surprise… or not. I did obviously know that many girls do wear black leggins. However, this is one of the facts you are just oblivious to until you find yourself in a situation where this fact actually becomes of interest. By the way, is it not fascinating how our consciousness works? There are countless things happening around as ALL THE TIME. However, our consciousness (or to be more precise: the thalamus, yes, someone studied for their degree in psychology) relays but also filters and pairs the signals it receives. So, anyway – why did my thalamus finally decide to gives this information some attention? Well, once a week a laundry service was offered. One for all the girls and one for all the boys. So – around 120 women and a similar amount of men (OK, maybe slightly less) dropped off their dirty clothes which were then being washed and returned a few days later. But: they came back in one massive pile. And let me put it like this: this is when I realised that I had not been the only one who had worn black leggins…

6. Sharing a small cold dark room with four people can be fun

OK, the first few night were tough. The bed was super uncomfortable – the first few nights I often woke up in pain. I also suffered from jet lag the first few nights and found it really difficult not to move in order not to wake up my roommates. I also had to get used to the fact that one girl always wanted to go to the prostration class, so she had to set her alarm earlier and obviously woke everyone up. AND: it was also kind of weird when your roomies wore the silent batch or when it was that time of day when we should keep silence and you just had to get used to being in a small room with other people you hardly knew without communicating. However, we did have so much fun. When I do talk about having fun this usually excluded the times we spent in silence. Still, even without communication the atmosphere in our dorm was so nice and warm (whereas the room was freezing cold). What have I learnt? Maybe the size of your room/flat/house does not really matter. Maybe it does not really matter whether you have to share it or not. What does matter is that there is a nice and welcoming atmosphere. And yes, a bit of privacy it certainly sometimes appreciated – but it almost seems that us, as humans, can get used to all kinds of circumstances easily.

7. DEATH- we will all die (sorry for ruining your day) 

Death, death, death, death, death…I could die today, I could day in a few seconds, I could die tomorrow. Yes -we talked a LOT about death. And in my spare time I pretty much only read about death as well. I probably dreamt about it as well – but then Buddhists consider sleep a sort of death – so while I was dead I dreamt about death – oh dear. Now, those people who know me do probably know that I consider death a very important subject- maybe even one of the most important ones. I also think that our society has chosen not an ideal approach when it comes to death. A death-denying society, like most western societies, is confronted with numerous problems. Lets look at two of them.  Problem number 1: if you deny death then you will be very surprised by the fact that death is actually quite real and believe it or not – you will have to deal with this subject at one point -guaranteed. And it might make it slightly harder if you have denied it all your life – right? And problem number 2: if you are aware of the fact that you and all the people around you, animals, the cactus that normally survives your horrible treatment and at some point even your favourite rock will disappear – death might be just the most perfect instrument to actually get you off the couch and do the things you want to do. Yes, I know, this is such a cliche – but after extensively thinking about death, working in a hospice and reading numerous books on this subject, I still come to the same conclusion. Yes, obviously, life is complex and we get stuck in situations we are not comfortable in but feel we cannot leave, sometimes external factors influence our life and sometimes change just seems too risky.  I don’t want to go into any details here because it is such a broad and important subject- and I am well aware of the human dilemma. However, in my opinion it cannot be wrong to once in a while check in with yourself. Look at your life, look at how you perceive your life, check your values against your life, check the overall mood, check the path you are on – and, if needed, check whether any changes in your life or in your perceptions/attitudes are possible and beneficial. Now, I will probably write about this subject more extensively another time but I do not want to finish this short paragraph without mentioning the infamous death clock.  Check: http://www.deathclock.com. It will calculate your time of death and gives you a count-down– – not sure about its accuracy though- so don’t blame me if it was wrong (oh, yeah, just realised that you cannot anyway;)). Pretty morbid, you think? Maybe – or maybe just funny and potentially some food for thought.

Below some beautiful words about death from Thich Nhat Than:

A flower neither is born nor dies. It manifests when the conditions are right and it disappears when they are not right any longer. Same for us – we manifest when conditions are right and disappear when they are not. We are also – as everything else too- relying on many things in order to manifest. If you look deeply into the flower, we can see many non-flower elements. Without sunshine, the flower cannot manifest. So you can see the sunshine, the cloud, the rain in the flower, the soil, the nutritions. One cause is not enough to bring about what is there. Manifestation is not the opposite of destruction. It simply changes form. It does not come from somewhere and it does not go somewhere. Sunflowers in April: the seeds are already planted. But they haven’t manifested yet. They are just waiting for one more condition to show themselves. Birth of a cloud: before it was water, then vapour, wind is needed, later it turns into rain –> grass –> cows –> milk –> ice-cream.

8. It might be possible to better control the mind and its fabricated stories

Have you ever tried to sit still and watch your mind (as an observer)? In one of my previous posts I told you a little about my experiences and what kind of crazy thoughts cross my mind – all the time. From my own personal experience so far I have two things to say about meditation practice and being the master of your mind.

1. It helped me so much. The mere fact to know that my thoughts are not reality, that I am not my thoughts, that I can actually influence my thoughts gave me a certain sense of self-control and with that came a certain sense of freedom and reassurance. Yes, even if things get messy, I still have a chance to influence my thoughts. And that makes me get to number 2. Damn, it is difficult. It is incredibly difficult. And it needs lots of practice. But: I have met people in my life who were quite advanced on the path of being the master of their mind. Not to mention the Dalai Lama (but seriously, who has actually time to practise this skill for 6 hours or so every day for the next decades?) but I have also met other people, people in very difficult situations who managed to react so calm and in control even when things around them were just falling apart. I am not sure whether it is possible to completely control your crazy thoughts but from my own experience I can say that even a little bit of practice – even a little bit of progress can make a big difference when being faced with a very difficult situation. So if you haven’t tried, go and try it out yourself. As the Dalai Lama always says: never just believe  – go and find out for yourself :).

9. Some highlights from the teachings

  • One experience can create different mental experiences –> your mind dictates whether you have a good or bad experience. It is possible to develop positive attitudes, but it needs work. e.g. if you want to go skiing you are happy when it starts snowing, if you are driving in your car you are unhappy about the same fact. If you see that hot guy flirting with you you are happy to be single, if you are at home alone you are unhappy about the same fact.
  • the mind often superimposes, it often extremely exaggerates and fabricates a story, which has no foundation. e.g. I have such a terrible life. I will never find a job I like. I am not good enough to do this and that.
  • We easily judge people, just by looking at them, a certain behaviour, the colour of their hair, the way they speak, what they wear. etc. We immediately want to label them. Although obviously what we perceive is a tiny tiny fraction of what really is and that image we have has no valid foundation at all.  e.g. You think someone is a rude person because one time he has not said hello, you have a clear image of a man in a suit or a homeless person on the street – although you have never even spoken to them. –> even if you speak to someone and they act in a, what you perceive as, rude way it does not turn them into a rude person. There is no such thing. At most it is rude behaviour. A person is never just this or that.
  • Law of impermanence. NOTHING stays as it is – and as Mr Chaplin remarked: Not even our troubles… e.g. a good meditation practise here is to think about how you felt a minute ago, 30 min ago, 2 hours ago, this morning when you woke up, yesterday, 10 days ago, 1 months ago, 1 year ago – -> it shows you that nothing stays the same. 
  • Everyone wants to be happy and acts out of this desire. Always good to remember – to put yourself in someone else’s shoes before you judge them – although obviously this might not always be acceptable behaviour and there might be a need to intervene, but the understanding is important.
  • Clear nature of the mind: the natural state of the mind is pure, like the sky – no clouds, free of pollution. But then dirt gets put into it and it gets murky. However, when you run it through a filter it can get clean again. There is no dirt that does not have an antidote
  • We can enforce negative and positive emotions. For example: when we recall again and again how an enemy has harmed us, our hatred greatly increases. This represents analysis towards an object of hatred and it ignites our experiential awareness of hatred. The same is possible for attachment, for example. If you want to let go of someone but you keep on thinking about this person over and over again and do not interrupt your thoughts – your attachment gets re-ignited.
  • The mind hardly ever seems to be satisfied in the now. It almost always tries to find something better in the past or future until we reach that point and then again it finds something more interesting.

10. I don’t want to become a nun 

I know this might come as a surprise to some of the people who know me ;). But really, at some point in my life (probably after another boring date or so) I actually considered life as a nun. It sounded quite simple – and sometimes simple just sounds good.  Everything is kind of organised, you do not have to worry about finding a job (you like) anymore and even less about meeting a man you really like – keeping him – putting up with him and so on. No, you spend your time on this planet studying and teaching. Life becomes in a way more predictable (so I assume). So a certain part in me shouted: yes, fantastic, lets do this. But then there was another part. This part wants to be free, wants to try things out, wants to fall, wants to get up, wants to experience, wants to learn, wants to suffer (really?), wants the unexpected… I am by no means saying that life as a nun does not have its advantages and even uncertainties – but, right now, I still enjoy the chaos of my life—and who knows: never say never 🙂




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