I look out from the very top of a green mountain overlooking sprawling Kathmandu. Quiet permeates the air with an occasional eagle spreading its wings soaring overhead. The mountains in the far distance are an ever changing tableau-variously swathed in gray clouds, hidden by white puffy ones, or shining clear in the aftermath of a monsoon rains shower. A golden temple looms in front of me, dominating the center of the mountain.
The Kopan Monastery, a mere thirty minute ride from the international airport is a world apart from the teeming, crowded streets and alleyways of third world Kathmandu. Up in Kopan there are well-tended paths, green gardens, flowering trees, ornate temples, and golden statues of Bhudda. The monks garbed in burgundy colored robes, with bright yellow shirts peeping out the top, gather before 6 AM for communal prayer that is strongly reminiscent of the familiar prayer in the neighborhood synagogue near my house, with the welcome addition of mugs of hot tea and bread, that are past around to each person who has arrived on time. Group chanting is periodically disturbed by the crashing of cymbals, the ringing of bells, and long horns blown vigorously by two young monks, creating a cacophony of noise that apparently helps the prayers reach their intended destination.
What am I, a sixty-year-old Jewish woman doing here? While I am an adventurous traveler, Buddhist monasteries were not high on my list until now. So how did I get here? Kopan monastery welcomes what they call “private stays,” when no courses are taking place. During these private stays which can range from days to weeks, visitors are welcome to attend Dharma talks, an hour in length, that are offered by the local nuns and monks providing a general introduction to Tibetan Buddhism. Lucky for me, the few free days that I have before I begin to work on a post earthquake psychosocial intervention program with a local NGO, are available for private stays at Kopan. This seems to me a godsend. What a wonderful way to both rest up after a long trip and before the hard work I anticipate ahead, as well as an interesting way to enrich my very limited knowledge about Buddhism and better understand Nepali culture. Considering that the month of Elul, the Jewish month of soul searching that precedes our High Holidays has begun, my visit to Kopan provides an opportunity for personal “heshbon nefesh,” examination of my life, my soul, the year that has passed.
Sitting cross legged on cushions in a corner of the massive temple, during the morning Dharma talks we learn about the root of human suffering, the nature of anger, and the Buddhist way (literally the Dharma) to release ourselves from these and other ills that human beings are plagued with. The two middle aged nuns who lead these talks are both Westerners who became nuns more than thirty years ago. We laugh together about our similar haircuts, one of the nuns actually telling me that she did a doubletake when she saw me, thinking that I was one of them! We both agreed that this haircut, a basic buzz cut, is wonderful,requiring minimal care and attention, while always looking good.
Looking back at my five days in the monastery, I sense that these were days taking place in a different dimension. This was time out of time. I noticed that my mind was empty, blank. No thoughts or worries occupied me. I had no “to do” lists, no tasks or things I had to do. The writing I intended to spend time on, I somehow never got around to. Reading, walking, thinking, breathing, meditating, journaling, looking at the breathtaking scenry and talking filled my days. Enjoying the company of visitors from Mauritius, Iran, Germany, New Zealand, South Africa, Brazil, Holland, Australia, and the USAour conversation centered on Buddhist thought and practice. There were those who were well versed, longtime Buddhists and others that were new to this. Many of the people came to the monastery searching for answers to life challenges such as lost love, choosing a career, and dealing with illness. Others were spiritual seekers, looking for answers to the mystery of life. Yet others, like me were simply seeking a peaceful environment away from the hubbub of life, a few days “off,” refuge from the world, and an interesting one at that.
The days of a monastery are well ordered. One knows what to expect and when to expect it. There are prescribed hours for prayer. There are specified times for active debate where young monks gather in twos and threes, and verbally spar with each other, repeating ancient texts, challenging each other, and concluding each challenge with a clap of the hands. Their animated faces and bodies exude a concentrated effort, and an excited, focused attention.
Contemplating the lives of the monks and nuns, it occurred to me, that living a life without family, without responsibility for livelihood, spending large parts of the day in prayer, study and meditation, and living in a community of peers, is a life with far fewer stresses than most of us can imagine. In this modern age of instant communication and the expectation to be immediately responsive and constantly reactive, our lives are far removed from the measured, ordered, peaceful lives of these monks. Is it any wonder that the monks had an air of equanimity about them? Equanimity. That was the word that immediately came to mind observing the monks, and long before I learned that Buddha directed his followers to cultivate equanimity (uppekha) along with compassion, joy, and loving kindness, considered the Four Great Virtues.
My personal “heshbon nefesh,” soul searching, comes together in the contemplative atmosphere, the beautiful gardens and temples, the soaring mountains in the distance. There is time here to study my Talmud texts, time to pray to my God, the God of Abraham, Jacob and Isaac, as well as Sarah, Rebecca, Rachel and Leah, time to think about the year that is concluding and the year to come, and time to contemplate the meaning of life, the very essence of our beings.
In our Dharma classes, we learn about the basic emotions: anger, jealousy, hate, sadness, love, happiness. We consider many of the 51 aspects of mental formations. We learn that karma means cause and effect, and as such according to Buddhist thought, we can impact on what happens in our lives. Our lives are not totally random, and things don’t just happen to us. We have a part in them. Life here in the monastery is pared down to the basics: simple food and lodging, honest conversation, and straightforward interactions.
How do we take this back into our lives, I ask my favorite nun on the eve of my departure. You don’t, she says. You cannot take this experience back into your life. You take the wisdom you have gleaned from your stay here back into your life.
I think about this. What wisdom do I take with me? An appreciation for how little we need, how things don’t make us happy, how anger is destructive, the importance of stopping and breathing, reconnecting to my body, and observing my mind. These are the things I take, along with a snapshot of Kopan indelibly printed on to the screen of my mind. A picture that I can retrieve at a moment’s notice, with a mindful breath in and out, reminding myself that such a place exists in this world.