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.
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 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).
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 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.
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.
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.
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: 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.
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.
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.
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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