Monday, January 17, 2011
Once Upon a Time in the Monastery
13th of November –13th of December, 2010
A gong goes off. A bell rings. Hundreds of monks are already chanting. I peak at my watch in disbelief. It’s 5:15 AM. The night before, the debates held by these same monks had raged on until 10 PM. In this dark cold morning, with the deep hypnotic chants of hundreds of monks, a new day has begun. This is the way monks roll.
For one month, 250-something westerners, including two “jibaritos de Mayagüez”, would get a peak into monastic life and in the process learn a thing or two about Tibetan Buddhism and a lot about ourselves. Kopan Monastery, under the guidance of Khen Rinpoche Lama Lhundrup, one of the happiest persons that I have ever seen, which also has the most contagious giggle imaginable, is devoted to the education of young monks from the surrounding impoverished areas to prepare them for a life of service as Buddhist monks in the Gelugpa Tradition. Kopan is also part of FPMT, Foundation for the Preservation of the Mahayana Tradition, which has more than 160 centers all around the world. These centers are set up by students, who after being exposed to dharma (the Buddha’s teachings), feel compelled to share these insights with others when they return to their home countries. It all started back in the seventies, when a few hippies from “The West” came over land to Nepal to learn about Tibetan Buddhism, which was unknown to the rest of the World until Tibetans started fleeing their Chinese-occupied lands. Upon arriving to Nepal, the soul-searching hippies would wind up in Kopan studying under Lama Yeshe and Lama Zopa Rinpoche, two great Masters, back when Kopan was only a goat farm. Forty years later westerners still flock to what is now a beautiful sanctuary of peace on their own spiritual journeys towards enlightenment. Somehow, I found myself here, up at the crack of dawn for the sake of finding deeper meaning to existence.
The morning began at 5:30 with a purification ritual to cleanse the evil deeds and mental states of the past and start the day off on the right track. I, on the other hand, would usually sleep through this since I am not a morning person, to say the least, and also because listening to the chanting monks while tucked under the covers in the cold morning was really nice. I would roll out of bed an hour later and head down to the main gompa, or mediation hall, for our morning meditation.
Meditation (gom in Tibetan, hence gompa) is the practice of familiarizing ourselves with the thoughts and feelings that arise in our mind with the intention of being more aware of what is really going on in there. This to me was brand spanking new, since for most of my life I have been too busy going nowhere fast. Becoming familiar with what is going on in our mind provides a little bit of mental space to be more aware of why we feel a certain way and to understand why we act how we act. This awareness, or mindfulness, allows the true nature of our mind to be manifested: the true nature of the mind being, a clear bright light full of bliss and joy, or so said The Buddha. Think of it this way, our mind, in its “natural” state, is like a glass full of crystal clear water. Our thoughts, ideas, prejudices, ego and so on are clumps of dirt, dust and debris, making the mind more like a glass of muddy water. Meditation is simply letting the water sit so that the dirt settles at the bottom of the glass and the water becomes clear again. Eventually, we avoid letting the junk in and remove the existent crap for good to be free of obscurations and allow ourselves to experience the happiness of our true nature. You achieve this by sitting down and focusing your attention on your breath. Close your eyes, sit cross-legged on a cushion with a straight back to allow “the winds” to flow, and focus on the sensation of the breath.
Well...not really. In fact, it is the toughest challenge I’ve ever encountered: trying to wrestle down my crazy, hyper-active, scattered, over-analytical, over-critical, running-around-in-circles-like-a-monkey-on-crack mind. To illustrate my point, here is how my typical meditation session would go. I close my eyes and focus on the instructions given by Venerable Namgyel, our hysterically funny but truly insightful meditation guide. I focus in on my breath for 2 or 3 breaths and suddenly, the memory of being water-skiing with childhood friends in La Parguera creeps in. I become aware of the distraction and come back to my breath. Breath in, breath out, breath in, pizza, Sancho Panza, Medalla, Fred Fred Fred…Ok, I’m distracted again, back to the breath. I say to myself “C’mon Juanse, you can do this, focus.” Breath in, breath…I wonder if we’ll get regular pooridge or rice pooridge for breakfast…and I drift away. This is just 30-second glimpse at my mind during meditation, now imagine how it goes for the rest of the hour.
Juanse vs. The Crack Monkey is followed by breakfast. After breakfast, I’d head back to The Lower Realms (the unofficial name of the dorm room I shared with 15 homies) and do some menial chores to keep the area clean and beat down my ego. Nothing better than scrubbing down toilets being used by 40 guys to deflate your pride. The awareness of interdependence was also evidenced by these tasks, making me more appreciative of the work done by people that I hardly ever see and take for granted. Without their effort my life would not be this relatively easy glide.
Two humbling reminders later, the day continued. It was back to the gompa for a couple of hours of teachings on the Lam Rim, a text developed through the centuries which summarizes the teachings of the great Masters and serves as a roadmap on the path to enlightenment. Our guide to navigate the content and context of the Lam Rim was Venerable Steve Carlier, a very proper, soft-spoken and kind, English monk. Constantly impressing us with how humble a human being can be, he would approach the teachings with a focus on introspection and thinking things through. He laid out the concepts without much spice and let us do the seasoning ourselves. It was really challenging to handle, many times causing some uncomfortable internal strife, as I would see how many of my obscurations shackled me to unhappiness.
The “let it marinate” approach also sparked many interesting conversations and discussions with the rest of the fellow truth seekers in the course. After morning teachings came lunch and up to this point no talking went on, so after lunch most of us, especially me, came out ready to talk. Discussions that started during the Q & A sessions inside of the gompa, would flare up outside at this point. A long break after lunch and then discussion group sessions followed. This is where most of the intense debating happened. You could hear the chatter that reflected the uncomfortable feeling of being exposed to concepts that were fairly new to most and mostly the opposite of the way we live our day-to-day. The biggest hurdle in my mind and fuel for the most ardent discussions that I undertook was the concept of emptiness. I preface what I’m about to say by stating that I have yet to fully grasp this idea, even superficially. Also, if you understand this and can apply it, and I hope all of you do, you’ll be enlightened. So please bear with me ‘cause, as it would be said by Inspectah Deck “Socrates philosophies and hypotheses can’t define how I’ll be dropping these”.
Lemme (try to) break it down. Things are not what they appear to us. In a way they are, because that is how we perceive them, cognize them. This is called the conventional truth. To us, they are right there in front of us, just they way we see them. But we fail to see or simply forget that the way that I see it is only the way I see it. Whatever I see or sense only appears like that to me. It’s all relative to each individual’s perspective, but we forget this all the time. Let me give you an example. Plastic bags. In the “west” a plastic bag is used (excessively) to carry solid objects. You go get your groceries, you put it in a plastic bag. Here in Asia, a plastic bag is also, “a plastic bag” as we know it, but it is also a cup. You go buy some tea or a coke from the vendor on the corner, he’ll put some ice into a plastic bag, fill it up with your drink, put a straw in it and “have a good day”. So is it a bag, or is it a cup? Well, both, and none at the same time. A plastic bag can also be a drainage clogger, or what ruins otherwise beautiful scenery. On its own, it is empty until we fill them with existence and meaning (literally and figuratively in this case).
Things are only what we make them out to be, and this is known as the ultimate truth. A bad day is only as bad as we let it be, ‘cause on it’s own its really empty. It can as easily be a good day in the making if we decide to infuse it with joy, like filling big puffy letters with a can of spray. If I could only extrapolate this to my everyday I could just see myself roaming the world with a constant smile on my face. Turning every problem into an opportunity to grow, any argument spun around with positive flow, light up the darkness with glow, not let pain hang on, just let it go, let it go.
Afternoons and evenings were usually more mellow, as the exhaustion of the day started to kick in. More teachings, tea and round 2 of “Crack Monkey Royal Rumble”. Dinner followed, and all was sealed off by another purification ritual before calling it a day and retreating into The Lower Realms. A few minutes of reading before dozing off to the sounds of monks slapping their palms together as the debates escalated into the night.
The experience of spending a month at a monastery truly refocused my objective. A month spent with stimulus like this constantly making neurons fire leads a young man to much more aspire. Aspirations of creation, many thoughts of liberation. Understanding that if it is all merely an imputation, then it is only a matter of having the right intention. Much has to be devoted to achieve the ultimate motive, being happy and making others happy is the prerogative.
Even though this is not a user review, I will strongly recommend it. Not only did I learn something about Buddhism, about the way monks live, and about how my mind is so limited, but also became aware of the comforting fact that I am not the only one in the trenches. That even if it is an individual, internal struggle, it is always reassuring to see that you are not fighting alone. Plenty of comrades from all walks of life and from all over the world are fighting the same fight, not willing to conform to a life devoid of light.
The hope is that slowly, but surely, all of us, in our own little way will eliminate the obscurations from our path and at the same time shine some light on the paths of others at our side. Be it a soothing word or a helping hand, reflecting a ray of happiness into anyone’s path is always in demand. And in my view, to be successful to achieve the crucial task, I must be firm in every step that I take along the path. Always knowing that it is my mind that makes things definitive. Ultimately, everything is relative.