It’s really weird going from 6 weeks of courses about Tantric practice which focuses on pleasure and then after 3 days of travel hell (a word banned in Tantra!) being in a Tibetan Buddhist monastery for a 10 day intensive course on Buddhist practice which focuses on renunciation! Maybe it wasn’t the smartest idea however the timing worked out so well I could not but see it as a sign. I’ve always had an interest in Buddhism so why the hell (oops) not? They are both spiritual practices and have interesting perspectives on how to live life, be happy, and reach the ultimate spiritual high.
Some of the basic tenets are similar such as the belief in karma and reincarnation, however one major difference is that Hinduism (where Tantric schools originate from) believes in multiple gods – over 33 million – whereas Buddhism doesn’t believe there is a god. I actually never had that realisation before until it was mentioned in the first teaching session. I think I’m getting the karma thing and reincarnation sort of makes sense however it’s a little more difficult to get my head around than concepts of mindfulness and compassion! Attachment and the concept of impermanence and mistaken reality are also major tenets of Buddhism. The ‘deadly sins’ are killing, stealing, lying, sexual misconduct and alcohol (I felt that I could adhere to the first 4…well maybe the first 3! – sorta). It is a very intellectual philosophy and, apparently being more and more backed up by science, with some esoteric notions thrown in. Most of the logic makes sense to me on some level and will more than likely impact on my functioning in life, however I have no plans in becoming a Buddhist nun!
Around 140 people started the course, however, as would be expected there were a lot of dropouts. The diversity was wonderful. People from the age of 18 years old to over 70. People from all over the world from very different cultures, lifestyles and socioeconomic status. I met so many interesting and beautiful people who were there for different reasons. Some searching for life’s answers, others struggling with mental health issues and addiction looking for respite, and others just interested in learning more about the philosophical approach of Buddhism. I felt like I took something from the tantric course with me which made me arrive in Nepal with my heart open and full of love for the people around me…well most anyway. There were some people who challenged the whole concept of compassion and patience however, as Buddhism states, they are our best teachers! We had discussion groups for the first 5 days and in my group there was a lovely, intelligent, and incredibly insightful young Lebanese woman who was blown away by having the opportunity to interact peacefully with the 2 people from Israel in our group.
The whole experience was pretty intense. The schedule started at 6.45am for the first meditation session until around 8.30pm when the last meditation finishes with some teaching sessions, the discussion group and a couple of breaks (other than meals) in between. So much for having a rest! We were not supposed to play music or read anything other than spiritual books which I complied with. We were also not supposed to have internet access, although you could purchase internet at the cafe, however I chose not to. Not having the net was a challenge for the first few days however I got used to it after a while. We were also not supposed to kill, steal, lie, have sexual contact or use alcohol. I managed to adhere to these expectations as well – well…. except for the mosquito I killed in my room – supposedly it could have been my mother in another lifetime! Sorry ma.
Some people went for walks outside the monastery during the 10 days however I chose to stay within the grounds except when we visited the nunnery which was down the hill in the village. I think due to the intensity of the regime and not leaving the monastery for 8 days, walking out of those gates gave me a massive sense of freedom – part of me didn’t want to go back, however I managed to drag myself back in to finish what I started. Spending time in the nunnery and walking around the village gave me the respite I needed to face the next 2 1/2 days. While I was in the monastery I spent a lot of time during the breaks lying down on the floor in the Gompa (meditation hall) reading. As I was lying there on the 24 April the whole building shook. It appears that we had had an earthquake with a magnitude of around 4.7, however, it didn’t create a response from the monks and nuns as it is a common occurrence. It must have been frightening for those in Kathmandu as there was an earthquake 4 years ago almost to the day on 25 April 2015 which killed 9000 thousand people and demolished a lot of their city. Kathmandu is still recovering.
One requirement of the course was that everyday we uphold silence from after the last session at 8.30pm until after lunch the next day at around 12.30pm. The last 2 full days we had to maintain complete silence which was a little more difficult especially as we had got to know each other and wanted to chat. It was an interesting time of reflection for me. I looked at the way I think about, and react to others and recognised that those thoughts and feelings impact on my acceptance of others and my happiness. I think I already knew this however I noticed my intolerance becoming more intense as the week went on and I had no choice but to reflect on it! However, in my defence there were some people at this course who asked the most stupid questions (and sadly, always the same people including a tag team where the woman was at the front and her male partner was up the back). Even the nun (with the patience of a nun!) was getting annoyed. The problem of attachment was explained ad nauseam from day 1 however people still asked towards the end of the course ‘but attachment can be a good thing can’t it?’! Or on the last day the tag team wanted to know if Buddha was god because surely there needs to be a god (after numerous explanations about Buddhism not believing that there is a god)! The nun’s response was ‘you’ve been to these teachings for 10 days. If you need a god then you may need to go elsewhere’ (or words to that effect). During the silent days we didn’t have lessons or discussions and basically just meditated. We had around 5 hours sit down, cross legged, on cushions meditating and 3/4 walking meditation broken up over the day. I actually liked the walking meditation as it encouraged me to walk mindfully with my breathing and helped clear my head, but by the end of the second day I was well and truly over the sitting meditation! I actually didn’t have a problem with the silence surprisingly.
After the last couple of months experiences I feel even stronger in my view that people should be able to believe what they want to believe whether it is the ‘truth’ (whatever that means) or not. I have a friend with not the greatest eyesight and she saw a whale in the ocean. It wasn’t a whale, it was a boat, however the fact that from her perspective it was a whale gave her the thrill that seeing a whale gives you. So as far as I’m concerned, the joy she got from that should remain intact as if I hadn’t been there (yes, I did laugh at her and destroy her delusion), her ‘truth’ would have also remained intact. I think religion or spiritual belief is like that. If it is your truth and you get what you need from it to make this life more bearable, if not happy, why should anyone tell you to believe anything different? As stated before, no one has a monopoly on the truth despite them thinking that they do.
Although I was well and truly ready to leave the monastery, I left with new concepts to think about and some more reflections into my own life. Buddhism has a lot to offer and I respect the intellectualism of this philosophical approach, however, I’m not sure that from a religious perspective it is for me. I appreciated the experience and opportunity in relation to the discipline, the teachings and the people I met. After 10 days of intensity and restrictions it will be interesting to be in the ‘outside world’ and have a look around Kathmandu and Pokhara.