This article first appeared in 'Saturday Extra', The_ Age_, April 8, 2000
A young tulku (reincarnation) lived among us at Kopan. His name was Cherok Lama, though I dubbed him lama sunglasses, because he ran around the place in traditional robes and bright red, sunglasses. While I struggled with the concept of reincarnation I couldn't deny that he was one of the most remarkable, self-contained and bright children I had ever met. Not so much a child, as an adult in a tiny body. Only 7 years old, he already spoke 5 languages fluently. Often he would command an audience of a dozen westerners and monks as he told fairy stories, like Pinocchio, with the authority of a great speaker.
In tow would often be an even tinier monk, of three or so, who work a spider man mask or green fluorescent sunnies. I hadn't known what to expect when I went to do a 30-day-retreat on Tibetan Buddhism - but I certainly hadn't expected imperious baby monks who seemed to combine the dignity of eastern tradition with a kind of western cool.
One fellow traveler had laughed when I told him where I was going. Buddhist Bootcamp he called it and certainly that is what it seemed like when I saw the timetable: Morning bell rings at 5.00am, prostrations at 5.30am. A cup of tea (spiced, sweet and milky as I was to find out ) at 6.00am, an hour's meditation from 6.30 till 7.30, followed by breakfast. This was followed by what I thought sounded nice - karma yoga- only to find that that was cleaning the bathroom and toilet. Teachings began at 9.00am and went for two-and-a-half-hours. We had a couple of hours off, then a discussion group and teachings from 3.30 till 5.00. More tea, then Meditation from 6 till 7. Dinner till 8, then back into the temple for a relaxing visualization and chant before bed.
Then there were the rules. We were to be silent from 9pm at night to after lunch the next day. In the last two weeks of the course we were only to eat one meal a day. Men and woman were to sleep separately, even if they were a couple. There was to be no stealing, killing, lying, sexual conduct or taking of intoxicants. Not surprisingly there were long debates about caffeine - not an intoxicant apparently - and definitions of sexual conduct. Did flirting count?
The monastery is an hour or so out of Katmandu. It is surrounded by the mountains of Katmandu valley, and then bracketed again by Himalayan peaks. November is a clear time of year and every morning and evening the peaks were clear and jagged, white snow turning pink with the rising or setting sun. Everest itself was black, apparently because it is too steep on the Nepalese side for the snow to rest on. In the mornings the mist circled Kopan hill and blanketed the valley below, and at times it seemed as if we were floating above the clouds. As the sun rose higher it would dissolve into wisps until Katmandu was revealed below.
The beginnings of Kopan are recounted in a way which gives them the timeless and elusive qualities of myth, though in fact the monastery was only founded in the early seventies, by .Lama Zopa and Lama Yeshe. They were boys together in a refugee camp in Northern India, after fleeing Tibet in 1959. As young men they had gone to Nepal, where they had met a blonde, statuesque Russian/Los Angelene hippie called Zina, who had found knocked on their door one day and announced, 'I want a guru'.
She may have been the first, but was by no means the last westerner to want these Lamas as their gurus, if one could judge from the 250 people from around the world who were attending the course when I was there, from places as diverse as Finland, Turkey, Jamaica, Taiwan, Spain, Singapore, Japan and America. Zina had bought the land where the monastery now stands and asked her Californian friends to join her for teachings. They did - the beginnings of the course I was about to attend. Zina became a nun, and died while meditating in a cave in the early eighties. She was found dead in meditation posture. In her death there is a mixture of both the harshness of monastic life and its poetry and mystery.
The monasteries co-founder Lama Yeshe has also died, to be reincarnated as a young Spanish boy, Osel, who was the first reported western reincarnation. He is currently being educated in both western and Tibetan traditions and is considered a 'bridge' between the two cultures - a heavy load for any teenage boy to bear.
This embracing of opposites seems commonplace in Tibetan culture and was certainly a key part of my time there. An understanding between East and West is encouraged, enemies are considered our greatest teachers and the moment one feels any certainty one is encouraged to accept it's impermanence. Magic is as accepted as the air people breath. I was to hear many stories of deaths - both 'good' and 'bad', of babies being recognized as reincarnations after they toddled up to caves and plonked themselves down, insisting they were the yogi that had meditated there until his recent death. Of great lamas dying while meditating, but not decomposing, or of their evaporation into a 'rainbow' body - light.
Here is one story: a very senior Lama who lived close to Kopan had once been thrown into prison by the Chinese. As they slammed the door behind them they said, 'let us see where your Buddhism gets you now'. They went back a week later (he had not been fed) to find he had grown fatter and his wrists were straining against his manacles. When you are there these things are discussed as matter of factly as in Melbourne we might talk about our love life, or favorite restaurant. To Tibetans such stories are not even magic - to quote our teacher- 'there is no limit to what the mind can do.'
All the older lamas were refugees, having been forced out of Tibet by the Chinese in1959 or later. No wonder, then, that the Chinese were often invoked in teachings on the need to let go of anger. That struggle makes us stronger is a truisms of East and West - but perhaps we are less tested here. Certainly it was remarkable to be surrounded by a people who have been driven out of their land yet actively work to cultivate compassion towards those who had displaced them.
Lama Zopa had been taught English by Seventies Californians. The results are bizarre and when he gave teachings he spoke an engaging mixture of halting English and hippie. Sitting above us on his throne he would lean forward at key moments and say,' I am thinking what I am telling you is important. I am thinking you should check it out.' Or would combine dated pop culture with more traditional Buddhist homilies such as this: 'Need to analyze attachment in clinging to life's comforts. From this attitude is not peace. Opposite of satisfaction. Like Elvis Presley " I don't get no satisfaction.' Sorry, made mistake. I mean those guys, "Rolling Stones" [much laughter]. Saw video of Elvis Presley's last song. The young people on ecstasy. Sorry, they were ecstatic. While he was singing, tears coming out. Even though he achieved everything, money, reputation, wealth. But no satisfaction in his heart. He sees his heart is empty.'
All the classes and meditations were held in a small temple and we sat cross-legged on cushions before the teacher, who sat in front of the Lama's throne, which was crowned by a large portrait of the Dalai Lama. Behind his image was a beautiful golden Buddha that was 12 feet high. The whole temple was incredibly ornate, with bright colors, traditional paintings and statues covered in gold leaf. Beauty is considered a sign of respect and devotion to Buddha.
The course fell into two halves, bisected for everyone by a full moon and for me by a high fever. For the first two weeks our daily teachings were given by a German monk who had come to Kopan 15 years ago as a back packer, and decided to take ordination. His teachings were on a range of things -guru devotion, karma, meditation techniques, compassion, emptiness -and even when I found myself disbelieving I still enjoyed the history, the stories and the sense of immersing myself in another culture. I struggled with meditation but was excited by the possibilities it offered. I enjoyed the visualization sessions and chanting which, however they worked, did bring about an amazing sense of peace, and control.
It was amazing how many things slipped away with ease. Coffee and alcohol, my bookends for most days in Australia, were not missed for a moment. Sex? Frankly it was a relief to be in a place where it wasn't on the agenda. (lucky, really - my daily outfit was tracksuit pants, socks and thongs and a baggy T-shirt ). The food fairly quickly became boring, but so had the endless Asian-influenced-Australian- restaurant cooking that were becoming an expensive staple at home.
But as we inched towards the full moon, everyone became increasingly feral. One woman had a very public psychotic episode and had to leave the course. We hit the center of the teachings which emphasized that all life is suffering because it is temporary.
One attempt to explain suffering to us was to describe a pizza and then point out the experience was tainted because when the pizza was finished we needed to keep eating to retain the sense of satisfaction. The class struggled to see this as suffering, and we all started to drool. Then there were hours of lectures on the notion of hell realms - the place you go if your karma is particularly bad. My favorite hell realm was one where you are crushed to death again and again by mountains that take on the shape of those you have mistreated, which led to wild thoughts of meat-eaters like myself being crushed to death by chicken mountains. Great metaphors, but hard to take seriously.
The relentlessness of the classes began to get to me. My back was killing me from sitting cross legged each day, and my mediations had gone from the profound to thinking about sex for half an hour, then falling asleep.
I started to argue with our teacher, quizzing him about Buddhism's stand on evolution, and the timeframe for Buddha's next incarnation (90 billion years). He was patient and pointed out that traditional Buddhist teachings still stated the world was flat - suggesting, I suppose, that some patience on my part wouldn't go astray. Things got even more heated when there was a question about the holocaust. Did Buddhist teachings argue that all people murdered during the holocaust had the karma to be murdered, one guy wanted to know. The answer was hard-line - yes, people with that karma chose to be born Jewish in Germany at that time.
Nor did the definition of sexual misconduct didn't leave anywhere for gay - or a lot of heterosexual couples - to go (pun intended) and as it vetoed oral and anal sex. It was at that point that one American lawyer I'd become friendly with left the course. 'No head jobs? I'm out of here,' he muttered as he headed of to go elephant riding in Chitwan National Park.
Around this time quite a few people left the course, many feeling that the emphasis of this particular tradition, Gelugpa, was too fundamentalist, puritanical and at times very culturally specific. I became angry that my fantasy about Buddhism being a kind of all-embracing cure all wasn't seem to be true and struggled at times to resolve the compassion of the Dalai Lama (also a member of this particular tradition) with some of the harshness of the teachings. I had a reluctant respect, though, for the fact that our teacher made no attempt to pretty it up for my western ears.
The day of the full moon I developed a high fever and had to go to bed (well, more literally, to floor, because I slept on a thin mat in a dorm) for several days. My fever broke the day Lama Zopa was arrived, and I started to shake of my general malaise. The monks painted beautiful symbols on the pavement with whitewash and placed buckets full of incense everywhere. More monks sat on top of the main temple blowing trumpets and others were chanting, deep and low. A couple of hours before his arrival a lot of monks put on traditional hats (kind of like cocky crests) and started to wait in line. I dragged myself up to find hundreds of monks, westerners and Tibetans holding incense and scarves with which to be blessed. The air was full of incense and the sound of a chanting which sounded like a low rumble from below the earth. I felt as if I had been catapulted into another century.
When Lama Zopa arrived he moved through the crowd, blessing everyone, talking to many. For a man who was only five feet high, his presence was amazing and his teaching later that evening was packed. Nuns and monks had come from all over Nepal, and the world to hear him. He spoke on compassion in a way which was very moving. He would cough and splutter as he spoke, and rock. Sometimes he would stop and meditate for 10 minutes or so without speaking. At times he would appear to fall asleep, which wouldn't be surprising given that he was reputed to never go to bed. Certainly he was meeting with members of the course till all hours - three, four, sometimes five in the morning.
But there was a strange beauty to the way he used language that compensated for such eccentricities. Take this talk on compassion: 'From compassion one experiences tranquility, peace of mind, fulfillment. Better than a relationship. Brings happiness for many lifetimes. Ultimately your compassion becomes source of happiness to your family, to your nation, to all sentient beings. More important than emergency hospital. Think of the impact one person without compassion, say a torturer, can make. Then think of what you can do if you are compassionate.
Stop killing is the minimum thing. Not even insects. Don't put your big feet on tiny fragile insect [one hand slaps down on the other]. Very important. Causes big change in you. Even our beautiful hands are meant for peace, not violence. Yet can become weapons. Destroy the world [ makes claws like a tigers, growls].'
It was amazing to be in the presence of someone who was so genuinely compassionate. One day I saw him crouched, chanting blessings, over a praying mantis that had some legs missing. Another day he walked around the large prayer wheel which dominated the courtyard with a caged bird he was about to release. Easy as it was to laugh at such eccentricities - and we all did at times - what was more interesting was to ponder on the absolute sincerity and love which lay behind these actions.
He had no sense of time and spoke till all hours, which was tough on those getting up at 4.00am as many people were. I took to missing the morning classes going to Lama Zopa's classes in the afternoon and evening. This gave me the mornings to play with, so I found a partner in crime, an Irishman called Tom, and we took to sneaking down to Katmandu. The first morning I did this I found a western café and ordered eggs Florentine, granola, fruit salad, fruit juice, coffee. . . well I could go on. Suffice to say it was a disgusting sight. Then we went for a spot of shopping and flirted while we were doing it. It seemed that two weeks of meditating on the nature of desire and attachment hadn't quite undone the habits of a lifetime.
The atmosphere lightened a lot in the last week or so. Peter, a Trinidadian DJ, rap danced to a purification mantra, before confiding in me that in the absence of spliff's the Vajasatva chant was as good as it gets. On the last day we were there we performed for the monks. We sung Christmas carols, did Irish jigs and warrior dance and a group of hippies sung 'Imagine'. The baby monks loved it and roared with laughter. In lieu of TV, we would have to do.
And there was always the constant, fabulous mingling of cultures, from the lamas in sunglasses that greeted me on my first day, to this exchange which took place towards the end of the course, between Daniel, a seventy-year-old, deaf, Christian, eco-warrior from Montana, and Lama Zopa. It began with Zopa rocking on his throne, slapping his body, pulling at his nose and ears. Playing the clown.
'Who thinks they are important than other people?' he announced, looking intently around the room. 'Maybe we FEEL we are the most important. What reason? What reason would that be?'
In a total non-sequiter, Daniel leapt up and yelled: 'Daniel - from Montana.'
Zopa: 'you? you think you are better than others?'
Daniel: 'trout. I fish trout, so I suppose I think I am better than trout. I eat 'em.' This guy had been trying to get permission from every nun, monk and lama he met to kill and eat trout for the last three weeks. One of the nuns had told him he should imagine he was eating his mother as he ate the trout. Clearly this hadn't daunted his enthusiasm.
Zopa:'do you ever think what the fish likes? Must research what happens to the fish. Think how you would feel if you were hooked in the mouth.' He says, then puts his finger in cheek and tugs on it.
Daniel,:'trouts don't have so many nerve endings in their mouth' then concedes: 'they probably wouldn't like them much.'
'I think the mountain fish will clap their fins' Zopa said before clapping his hands in a trout-like fashion. 'fish think "he goes to course now won't catch us". Maybe they make big party.'
When I got back the first thing a lot of people wanted to know was whether I felt changed and the answer is yes. I loved the tea, and the chanting, and the company and the porridge for breakfast. I loved the mist curling up around us in the morning as we watched the sunrise. I loved Lama Zopa's teachings. While I hadn't believed everything I heard, to be in a place where acceptance, rather than scepticism was the order of the day has given me a lightness I didn't have before my time there.
But people want to know about the hard core stuff. Did ANYTHING happen, they would insist? I suppose they meant levitation or something sexy and tantric. So, this was my moment, though it is as hard to hold onto as Daniel's writhing trout. We were wondering around the monastery doing a walking meditation, when the thought crossed my mind that I could just as easily be any of the other people around me. My westerner's insistence on my individuality and difference slipped away. I imagined, if you like, the possibilities - the relief - of a life where my ego didn't insist on putting itself at the center of everything. One second of realization in thirty days.
But that seconds means I have stopped seeing myself as at odds with the world and am slightly closer to accepting I am part of it. And I certainly don't intend to let the fact a some Bhuddists still think the world is flat stop me from exploring a world where magic is possible and the mind, with all it's capacity for love and generosity is considered limitless.