Kopan Monastery: Introductory Buddhism Course – Nepal

17 Jan

Kopan Monastery – Introductory Buddhism Course

Some time ago, I read an article on the Internet about the Introductory Buddhism Course from the Kopan Monastery. I immediately searched for details about the course on their website, filled out the application form, and reserved a spot for myself. I was eager to learn about Buddhism within an authentic environment. The Tibetan landscapes with Buddhist monasteries lost in the high, snowy mountains always attracted me. I wanted to experience the lifestyle of a Buddhist monastery. The Kopan Monastery wasn’t located in the mountains with huge rocks and bald eagles, as I would have liked, but rather on the outskirts of Kathmandu. I was still curious to go there.

When I arrived in Kathmandu, the Nepali (especially the Hindu ones) asked me with curiosity.“You want to stay for ten days in a Buddhist monastery?” “Why not ?!” “What are you going to do there?” “I have no idea, that’s why I’m going there, to find out.”

On my last day in Kathmandu, I had a quick breakfast on the rooftop terrace of my hotel, in Thamel, and went down in the street to bargain a taxi. “Kopan?” “1000,” “600,” “900,” “700,” “800,” “700.” Of course, I had known the right price beforehand. I guided the taxi to come and pick me up in front of my hotel. The following hour, we were lost and drowned in the urban, chaotic and heavy traffic of Kathmandu. And I still had to wear a mask against pollution, even inside the cab. Eventually, we reached the luxurious monastery of Kopan, situated in a poor and dusty suburb of Kathmandu.

Kopan Monastery: the main gate

Kopan Monastery: the main gate

At the Kopan Monastery, I had to face different questions: “Why are you here?” asked Mijua, the Polish who was thinking to take a break down from backpacking after he had been traveling the world for ten years (he continues his journeys at this moment). “I’m very curious,” I answered. Next, we did the check-in and more people arrived. Noise. Agitation. The monastery’s dog sniffed the newcomers. Mexicans, Americans, Germans, French, Spanish, Australians, Canadians, a total of about one-hundred-and-fifty persons enrolled in the Buddhism Course at the Kopan Monastery.

Kopan Monastery: the stupa garden

Kopan Monastery: the stupa garden

Kopan Monastery: the organization

The Kopan Monastery had a colorful gateway, a reception on the right side of the entrance, and a shop and a caffé on the left side of the entrance. A gompa (the equivalent of a church) was right ahead (up a group of stairs from the entrance) and a dining room was on the right from the main gompa. A bit further, there was a garden with a stupa in the middle and then shabby buildings with rooms for pilgrims down a group of stairs (on the right side of the garden). A few luxurious buildings, overlooking the city, with accommodation for picky tourists were down another group of stairs (on the left side of the garden).

Kopan Monastery: the prayer wheels

Kopan Monastery: the prayer wheels

The first day, I stayed in the same room with an American girl, but during the night, my allergy to dust mites activated and I couldn’t sleep at all. The following day, I urgently required a big, ventilated room (supposedly, a luxurious one: an en suite room with hot water for shower). I paid the difference and, surprisingly, my MasterCard was functional on the POS of the monastery, on the outskirts of Kathmandu, full of bumps in the muddy and dusty road. Eventually, I moved to another building of the monastery, called Tashi Khang, situated on a terrace with panoramic view over Kathmandu city. In the evening, I could smell the lilies in the garden when I came home. It was nice to be at the monastery.

Kopan Monastery: the Tashi Khang area with accommodation

Kopan Monastery: the Tashi Khang area with accommodation

Kopan Monastery: the program of the course

Intense, the program of the Introductory Buddhism Course had a rigorous schedule. 6.00 tea, 6.45 meditation, 7.30 breakfast, 9.00 Buddhist teachings, 11.30 lunch, 14.00 discussion groups, 15.00-15.30 break, 15.30 other Buddhist teachings, 17.00 tea, 17.45 meditation, 18.30 dinner, 19.30 questions and answers, followed by other meditations. We weren’t allowed to communicate in anyway to each other after dinner, not until the next day at noon. Thus, we were allowed to socialize only between lunch and dinner. If interested, the extended version of “silence” existed at the reception desk. It was a yellow ribbon that meant ‘total silence’. Who wanted to keep silence during the ten days of the course had to wear this ribbon.

There were three teachers for the Introductory Buddhism Course at the Kopan Monastery. Ani Karin was the course leader, a Swedish Buddhist nun, who had come at the monastery forty years ago after she had been traveling the world for two years. Joan was a Canadian Buddhist nun, who had also been traveling the world for two years before she had become a nun. Most of the time, she lived in Europe, where she taught at Buddhist centers in Spain and in Italy. Geshe was a Buddhist monk, invited to give us Buddhist teachings. He didn’t speak English well. I skipped his classes systematically after I struggled to understand something at his first teaching.

Kopan Monastery: the gompa full of people during the teachings

Kopan Monastery: the gompa full of people during the teachings

On the first days of the course, I found the Buddhist teachings very interesting. Buddhism is a philosophy. Buddhism is not a religion of belief in a god. Buddhism is based on the psychology of our mind. You can overcome suffering and negative emotions through meditation. You should not believe something unless you double-check it and agree with it. I liked Buddhism at once. It seemed more open and flexible than the Christian teachings of our orthodox church I was used to back home.

I had experience with meditations and knew they had a positive effect on me. For this reason, I wanted to experience deeper meditations at the Kopan Monastery. Meditation changes our mind and we see things in a different way. I even talked to Joan about the articles I write and it seemed I was doing an analytical meditation when I was taking down my thoughts. Dharma practice is to end our inner suffering forever. I would like not to suffer ever again in my life, but I was realistic and knew that I was still far away from that level.

Kopan Monastery: Buddha's statue in the main gompa

Kopan Monastery: Buddha’s statue in the main gompa

The first six days of the course we had discussion groups. Ani Karen divided us in groups of ten people. We met and discussed on predetermined topics, already written down on a piece of paper by the teacher. At the beginning of our meetings, we were ten complete strangers, but we opened our hearts and confessed the most hidden aspects of ourselves. It’s impossible to give an example of what I said or heard during this discussion group. After six days of discussions about the most shocking and terrifying things I could ever think about, I let go completely of the fear of being judged. Thanks, Rebecca, Nathan, Lyne, etc.

On the fifth day, I suddenly felt sad and depressed. Every day, Ani Karin told us about negative karma and suffering (something similar to the Christian repentance and punishment of our sins). Moreover, I was told that I could reborn into a lower realm (e.g. devil, snake, wagtail etc.) if I had a negative karma. After she told us these things one thousand times, I felt guilty, scolded, threatened, and punished like a child in the corner of a room. The universal solution we were given to avoid suffering was to jump somehow directly to the level of genuine compassion and unconditioned love. This way, I heard only how we “have to be,” the ideal version. And that we “must not” make mistakes.

Kopan Monastery: my experience

I had the feeling that everything I was told during the Buddhist teachings was only black and white, no shades of gray. We “should” redeem our mistakes and do many good deeds. To accept ourselves as we were, with our good and dark sides wasn’t a solution, apparently. Or maybe I missed exactly that teaching. I felt like a monster. For sure, I hadn’t come for that at the monastery. I put an end to everything that I heard during the course and stared around me. Some fellow classmates were still levitating, others began to revolt too and skip the classes, and some of them even left the course and the monastery for good.

When Ani Karin started to tell us standardized conclusions at the end of the meditations, I began to skip regularly her classes. I couldn’t stand it anymore and felt manipulated. I took part only in the guided meditations with Joan, who left us the choice to have our own experiences and answers at the end of each meditation. When I skipped the classes, I rewarded myself with mango juice from the shop of the monastery. I also used the internet after six days. I was a bad person according to their point of view because I broke the rules. But I could accept myself for that. Suddenly, I felt better and even enlightened. I was authentic. I was human, I wasn’t perfect, and I shouldn’t reach enlightenment right away and fast.

Kopan Monastery: the library

Kopan Monastery: the library

In the last two days, we had a silent retreat, which meant total silence. We only had meditations in the program of the course. The discussion groups didn’t take place anymore. Moreover, Any Karin told us not even to think of skipping the meditations. When I heard that, I instantly broke the rules. On the last day, I didn’t go to any meditation at all. I wrote, walked around the garden, sunbathed, went to the library, played with the Buddhist dog of the monastery, ah, and I slept.

Also Lyne, the Australian mother that had come at the monastery with her two daughters – Amy and Ruby, had no reason to fight to attain enlightenment right away. On top of all, we were hungry after each meal. For ten days, we had been eating only dhal bhat. It was an experience to eat it at the beginning but we barely nibbled from it at the end of the course. We promised ourselves to eat a big steak when we left the monastery. Nonsense, I couldn’t find a place to eat a real steak in Nepal!

Kopan Monastery: during a puja ceremony

Kopan Monastery: during a puja ceremony

Kopan Monastery: rituals

On the penultimate evening, we attended a puja Buddhist ceremony, which usually took place in the other gompa, where we weren’t allowed to enter. The monks sat in several parallel rows perpendicular to the entrance. They struck the gong and played various instruments: cymbals, conch shells trumpets, long trumpets, large drums. They recited mantras and even served tea, juice, and biscuits during the puja ceremony (this surprised me deeply). The following day, they started the same ritual over again.

Kopan Monastery: puja ceremony

Kopan Monastery: puja ceremony

Sometimes, the monks debated the Buddhist teachings in the courtyard of the monastery. One or two monks sat cross-legged, while the rest of the monks stood in front of them and asked questions about Buddha’s teachings. After they asked the question, they snapped their fingers and waited for the answer from the monk sitting cross-legged. They negotiated, argued, contradicted, and deliberated.

Kopan Monastery: monks debating Buddha's teachings

Kopan Monastery: monks debating Buddha’s teachings

On the last two days of the course, we experienced the ‘walking meditation’. While focusing on our breath, we had to walk a predetermined route in the courtyard of the monastery for fifteen minutes. We breathed and walked at the same pace. Thus, we had our mind already focused when we came to the gompa for the daily meditation. I found the walking meditation very interesting. I tried to walk at the pace of my breath and vice-versa. However, I found myself doing it naturally after five minutes. Syncronizing my small steps with my breath easily became a reflex. This way, my mind was free to think again whatever it wanted.

Kopan Monastery: a small group in the last day of the course, before leaving the monastery

Kopan Monastery: a small group in the last day of the course, before leaving the monastery

After our last meditation in the gompa, a fellow classmate had the idea to create a large circle with all of the participants. We held hands and ran toward the center of the circle. When the circle tightened, we gave each other a big hug while exclaiming a universal ‘goodbye.’ It was a big farewell hug for those of us who didn’t have the time to get to know all the one-hundred-and-fifty participants of the course. A monk was deeply moved by our big hug and filmed the scene.

I enjoyed my stay at the monastery, but I couldn’t wait to leave the place in the same time. I learned something I wasn’t expecting when I came here – practicing Buddhism was not for me. At least not at that moment of my life. But this way I discovered what was good for me – different kind of meditations. Moreover, I satisfied my curiosity and also achieved my goal: to live in a Buddhist monastery for ten days.

In the last day of the course, I waited for Rishi (my mountain guide-cum-porter) to pick me up from the monastery. It was about time to move on to my next experience. I was leaving for a trek into the Himalayas.

Kopan Monastery – Introductory Buddhism Course is the travel diary of my stay at a Buddhist Monastery on the outskirts of Kathmandu for ten days (find the version in Romanian at ‘Curs introductiv de Budism – Manastirea Kopan, Nepal). And here are all my Travel Diaries from Nepal (x12).

Have you been to a Buddhist Monastery or you’re planning to go at one? Leave a comment below this post and tell me what you liked about living in a Buddhist Monastery or what you’re interested to experience there.

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33 Responses to “Kopan Monastery: Introductory Buddhism Course – Nepal”

  1. Daphne from Girlswanderlust December 3, 2016 at 2:41 pm #

    I loved to read about your experience with the Buddhism course. I recently travelled through Nepal, but didn’t had the chance to stay a couple of days in a monastery. I just shortly visited some monasteries. Hope to do it one day, so I could experience the real ‘psychology of our mind’ like you did.

    • Authentic Travels December 6, 2016 at 2:57 pm #

      It is an interesting experience. Maybe 10 days is too much, but sometimes you can get the real feeling about something only when you exceed the limit. 😉

      • Mel July 18, 2018 at 11:19 am #

        I found this article super interesting! I leave for Nepal soon and have registered for this course. I’m considering doing the 5 day meditation course instead? Do you the 10 days would be better or stick with the 5 days?

        • Iuliana July 18, 2018 at 8:37 pm #

          You have daily meditation (morning/afternoon) also during the 10 day course. The difference from the 5-day meditation is that during the course you have also speeches/lessons of the nuns/monks/guru.

  2. Anastasia December 26, 2016 at 10:06 pm #

    Thank you for sharing your experience and for your honesty – not everybody can openly accept that certain spiritual experiences are not for them, as there is a big risk of being judged! I always found that there is a big difference in practicing the same philosophy when being “isolated” from an Earthy life and when leading a “normal” life. It is great to learn and carry on in our every day reality whatever is applicable without loosing a touch with ourselves and what is really important to us.

  3. Nicki December 28, 2016 at 1:28 pm #

    Thanks for sharing your experience. I actually thought Buddhism was a religion and was just having the discussion with my husband the other day – neither of us knew its just a philosophy. Thanks for clearing that up – as it is a wide misconception.

    Your photos are amazing – glad you got to experience this.

    • Authentic Travels December 28, 2016 at 6:20 pm #

      Actually, we were told at the monastery that Buddhism is a philosophy, but as I stayed there for 10 days though I had the feeling of a religion.

  4. ArtByHeart December 28, 2016 at 2:48 pm #

    Thank you for sharing this amazing spiritual experience with us! Buddhism is full of ideology beneficial for us all, everyone could use some calming down. I have been often staying in Hindu Ashrams and experiencing something similar. I always say with more meditation there will be less wars!

    • Authentic Travels December 28, 2016 at 6:21 pm #

      Hindu Ashrams seem interesting as well. When I go to India, I’ll try them as well.

  5. Hra December 29, 2016 at 1:28 pm #

    What an interesting experience 🙂 Wow!! I love your photos.. Thanks for sharing with us

  6. Harsh December 29, 2016 at 5:35 pm #

    I actually visited Bhutan two months back and went to so many monasteries. It feels like another world altogether. Kopan monastery is as gorgeous and I am pinning it to visit list once we plan on visiting Nepal.

    • Authentic Travels January 4, 2017 at 11:32 am #

      You have to go there. It is an experience no matter what your thoughts will be after going there.

  7. Joi December 29, 2016 at 7:40 pm #

    It’s cool, you had the experience and decided is not for you. We are free to chose our ways and what to believe in, how to live our lives, eventually everybody finds their place in this world and what their mission is and what they will live for. I believe in God.

  8. NowThatsAHoneymoon January 10, 2017 at 1:04 pm #

    I felt like I was watching a film or a documentary reading your article. Well-written and very interesting. I would never dare to stay at a Buddhist monastery – perhaps I would be curious, but not as adventurous as you that really took part in it. I admire your honesty and courage for breaking the rules and ‘feeling manipulated.’ Is this something that they frowned upon though, when you started missing meditations? What was it that you think “lacked” in the philosophy that didn’t fully satisfy your interests or personal needs? It would be interesting to know, because you mentioned how you loved it initially, then sooner on it felt like you “should be” someone rather than a unique individual.

    • Authentic Travels January 10, 2017 at 4:01 pm #

      Nobody frowned when I skipped the meditations. We were 150 participants at this course, so I don’t think that someone noticed my absence. What lacked it was the freedom of my own choice. I was told that “I have to” instead of “I can choose”. I mentioned in the article that one teacher was more open minded than the other one. My experience there doesn’t mean that Buddhism is good or bad, but it means that the teacher is very important.

  9. Claire Summers February 1, 2017 at 9:43 pm #

    This post is so interesting! I started reading it thinking wow I really want to go there. By the end, I realised it probably wasn’t for me either. But wow what an experience! I bet the meditation knowledge you now have is amazing. Thanks so much for sharing your experience.

    • Authentic Travels February 2, 2017 at 9:55 am #

      You never know. I am a very curious person, so why not!?

  10. Anne February 2, 2017 at 12:27 am #

    I am really impressed that you lasted ten days. I like the idea of learning more about buddhism but think it is just too strict for me. I have done retreats in India with a restricted diet and found it incredible but it was still hard. All that detoxing plays havoc with my mind and although worth it in the end, there are ups and downs along the way. It must have been a tremendously empowering experience but I am far too much of a chatterbox to seriously consider this.

    • Authentic Travels February 2, 2017 at 10:15 am #

      Well, I went there for the experience itself. I also wanted to learn something, but when I saw that they were telling me what to do, nope, I skkiped the classes.

  11. Laura Nalin February 2, 2017 at 10:19 am #

    Wow this seems like it was a pretty incredible experience! I am in love with the detailed stupa and other architecture in this. Super interesting post!

  12. Susanna February 2, 2017 at 11:05 am #

    Wow, this is intense. I don’t know if I could go through that for that amount of time. I can see how it would be draining and mentally tiring. It sounds like it was a good experience for you and I am glad you knew when you step back and take a moment for yourself. No one needs to make you feel guilty for living life. I really enjoyed reading about your experience here. Thanks for sharing.

  13. Paige Wunder February 2, 2017 at 5:26 pm #

    Oh my gosh – this sounds absolutely amazing! I studied eastern religion in college, and this sounds like a really amazing opportunity to get a more hands-on approach. I’ve loved temple visits in the past, and absolutely loved them, but THIS sounds just so amazing! I’m heading to Nepal early next year – I’ll be looking into this! Thanks for sharing!

    • Authentic Travels February 3, 2017 at 9:46 am #

      You can check up also my other posts from Nepal. I’ll be sharing them as soon as I post one.

  14. Jojo February 3, 2017 at 4:53 am #

    The stupa looks gorgeous!

    The first time I heard of a meditation retreat was 3 years ago. When he first told me about it, I thought ‘oh that would be easy. Not talking to people for 10 days.’ But I’m not so sure because I like to talk and meet new people haha. I do like the idea of focusing on yourself and stepping into a new state of mind.

    I am open to people’s beliefs and religions as long as they don’t try to push it on me. I like to learn and hear about different stories and practices but once they start pushing, I’m done listening.

  15. Sandy N Vyjay February 3, 2017 at 6:47 am #

    It was interesting, reading about your experiences in the Kopan monastery. Buddhism is indeed a fascinating and somewhat mystical religion. Your candid post throws light on how the Buddhism courses are structured.

  16. Sallly February 3, 2017 at 8:30 am #

    Thanks for sharing your honest experience with us. I had no idea what Buddhism is a philosophy. I’ve always had a really hard time meditating so I know this experience wouldn’t be for me but good thing you tried it out!

  17. Shobha February 3, 2017 at 2:32 pm #

    what a fabulous experience! If you want to learn Buddhism than it’s best to learn it in context and at such a monastery. You are very lucky to experience it like this.

  18. Claire February 3, 2017 at 11:54 pm #

    Wow, what an amazing experience! Even if Buddhism ultimately wasn’t for you, it is always wonderful to try new things and find what you do like & enjoy. It would certainly be interesting to learn more about other religions (or philosophies!) I think more of us should do this and understand more about our fellow man!

  19. Izzy March 10, 2017 at 6:28 am #

    I’m becoming a fast fan of your blog, this is truly the most authentic catalog of experiences. The Kopan Monastery is really well known but I didn’t have time to check it out while I was in Nepal. I’m glad that you listened to your inner voice and walked away from the times you felt judged. I honestly laughed out loud reading about the quick wear of dahl baht, we were in a ten day homestay and had to eat it three times a day, but the family we were with gave us all they had so it was rude to refuse. I think we had pizza the first day we were back in Kathmandu!

  20. maria August 11, 2017 at 3:35 pm #

    Hello, I am thinking on taking the course now in september and when registering, it says that you accept that attendance is compulsory to all the sessions. Was it that way when you did it? Because as I read, you were skipping some sessions. My fear is not to be able to tolerate the whole course.
    Thank you

    • Iuliana August 13, 2017 at 3:13 pm #

      Hey Maria, the program of the course is very intense, indeed. Better take a single room so that you can rest well and benefit from the course as much as you need/want/enjoy. The first days I was always sleeping between the sessions. But by the end of the course, the nun that was our leader kept repeating herself and it wasn’t interesting for me anymore – this is the main reason I skipped the classes with her. I felt that I was told what to do and not only guided as it should be a spiritual path. She also frightened us a couple of times that we MUST come to all the sessions, which I didn’t find a mature way of teaching, so I skipped again, just to see what happens. Well, don’t worry, nothing happened. You pay there so nobody is going to punish you for skipping the classes if you’re too tired or you consider that is not interesting for you anymore. Here is another article I wrote about my experience at Kopan Monastery: https://sonderers.com/winter-diversity/discovering-buddhism-at-kopan-monastery?rq=iuliana%20marchian

  21. David June 27, 2018 at 9:37 am #

    Thanks 4 sharing your experience 🙂

    • Iuliana June 27, 2018 at 1:35 pm #

      Thanks David. However, this is only my personal experience, so it’s very possible that you have a different experience if going there (which I highly encourage you). Nepal it’s an experience just being there after all.

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