(Originally posted on March 3rd, 2010)
Music of Thelonious Monk is playing in the background. The tiny back-alley café is filled with warm light and fresh smells. I am enjoying the best banana pancakes in Katmandu. Pauline and Andrea, new friends, are trying to talk me into going to a meditation workshop at the Kopan Monastery.
I’m torn. This year-long trip around the world is moving fast and my stay in Nepal is short, only three weeks. I had been planning to hike the Anapurna Circuit filled with teahouses and incredible views. Besides, I’m not a big meditator. In fact I’ve never meditated in my life and it sounds kind of cultist. What would my Mom back in Nebraska think? I don’t want to be brain washed, clothed in a flowing moo-moo while dancing around, day and night singing Kum-ba-ya, fed on only half a cup of oatmeal. I drink, I smoke and I swear. I’m happy with my own little version of spirituality. Those Monks would hate me. I’m a heathen compared to the life I assume they live.
While sitting at the table with my two new friends having a nice debate, three Buddhist Monks walk into the cafe. (I know this sounds like the opening to a really bad joke, but this really happened.) These guys are the real deal; shaved heads, dressed in red cotton robes and holding prayer beads. As each monk walks by, they take turns bumping into our table and squeezing behind my chair to the only remaining empty table. (Actually there were only three tables in the whole restaurant.) As each monk walks by making eye contact they say “Namastay” a common Nepali greeting.
Respectfully I return the courtesy. Once they are seated, my back is touching the back of the monk behind me.
The Monk turns toward me and with a chuckle and a quick side-to-side head bob asks, “Hello, where… from you?”
I couldn’t help smiling, “I’m from the United States.”
He laughs, rolls his eyes, shows a puzzled look and leans closer. I’m sure he could hear me, I think he just wanted to let me know that he really didn’t understand. Talking slower, we started to get somewhere. This monk’s smile and laughter were absolutely contagious and such fun. The majority of our conversation is made up of laughter, definitely not at each other but with each other.
Finally I asked, “Where do you live?”
He smiles, giggles and then replies “Kopan.”
I look over at my two friends and in unison they give me that, “See, I told you so!” look. You know the one, with the raised eyebrows and a slight smirk. I relent and realize that I’ve lost our little debate.
That settles it. The teahouses become added to my agenda. If it’s guys like this I have to live with for a couple of weeks I’m game. It would be a blast to dance around in a Moo-Moo singing Kum-Ba-Ya with these bald-headed cats.
However to protect myself, I decide that during my time at the monastery to have my own, personal, subversive goal. The goal; to get a bald-headed, robe-wearing monk to say, “Thank you…Thank you very much,” with an Elvis snarl. This will be my protection if it really turns out to be a cult. I will have my own agenda, my own secret operation. I can’t wait.
Feeling like a pinball getting thrown from side to side in the back seat, our taxi is racing along the twisted, dusty, ancient, back streets of Katmandu. Huge priceless stone sculptures are around every turn. These well-worn artifacts are not only worshiped and admired, they are used as anchor post for prayer flags, laundry lines and perches for pigeons. People, carts, cars, trucks, monkeys and dogs create a mass of confusion. Katmandu is a full assault on all the senses and filled with over-whelming pollution. This place is busy and our driver is either insane or incredibly good. Racing through the placid mayhem we hit the edge of town and our driver, Mario Andrettie, points to a walled-structure on top of a ridge, cradled in at the feet of the Himalayas and says “Kopan”, our destination.
Seeing the monastery that would be home for the next couple of weeks I begin to think of the T.V. series “Kung Fu.” It really is the only exposure I have to base my expectations on what a Buddhist Monastery is like. I imagine perfectly manicured grounds with robed, chanting guys learning Kung Fu and other monks in quiet meditation.
With the taste of road dust in my mouth I begin to feel a bit nervous. What have I got myself into? What if this really is like a cult? What if they only eat oatmeal and want me to write letters home asking for money? What if they want me to change my name to “Moonbeam?” I suppose I could change my name to “Moonshine” or perhaps “Jim Beam.” I snicker inside at my little pun and remember back to my protective, secret agenda, my mission and quest for an Elvis Snarl. I find comfort.
With these bizarre, surreal thoughts swimming in my head, we circle up the switchbacks to the monastery and arrive at the open, large, steel gates with two life-sized gold-covered deer sculptures perched above the opening. This type of life- sized, gold-covered deer statues facing one another are perched over many of the entrances to Tibetan Buddhists buildings.
In contrast to Katmandu, Kopan is clean and quiet. I am apprehensive and excited all at once. Within the Monastery walls and among the tall pine trees are several brightly colored buildings. This place is perched on top of the mountain ridge, the grounds are immaculate and filled with strings of prayer flags in different degrees of decay, gently floating in the breeze. The heavy pollution of Katmandu below creates an orange haze, like a beautiful sunset. I find myself entering this place with the same respect as a guest to a new church. The noise and chaos below has ceased to exists behind these walls.
Timidly, we open the door of the cab and we are greeted by several very friendly dogs, all mutts all-sniffing and all tails wagging. Quietly the three of us look around, not really knowing what to expect. The cab disappears and there we stand with our packs; wide-eyed travelers and happy dogs. A quick scan reveals no Kung Fu practice. No chanting. No one is levitating. How disappointing. There are several monks standing in the shade laughing in undisciplined loitering. As a monk comes over to greet us, a motorcycle comes blazing through the gate, right in front of us, the driving monk’s robe flapping in the wind. He skids to a stop in front of the other monks. Most of the loitering Monks come over to check out the bike. It was odd to see a bald headed, goggle-wearing monk riding a gigantic dirt bike. It wasn’t Kun Fu class, but close. It was cool.
As I had expected, I was not a very good meditator and most of the time the class was filled with high-stressed, overachieving yoga junkies from the Western world. Not wanting to hang out with the stress monsters, I would often cut meditation class just to sneak of the grounds to smoke cigarettes, (no smoking on Monastery grounds), and then hang out with the monks, talking and play jokes on each other.
During one of these fine loitering sessions, while sitting at the community picnic table overlooking Katmandu, I was talking with my new friend Ingma Jingma. He explained how he had walked through the Himalayas, avoiding the Chinese border guards. It had taken him thirty days with the only food and water coming from caring people along the way. He had been away from his home in Tibet for many years now and had not seen his family since he escaped. With millions of his countrymen killed by the Chinese, I though he belonged to one of the few groups of people on the earth who could rightfully be bitter and resentful. This was not the case. Surprising to me, he held no ill will in his heart for the Chinese, only compassion. It really made me consider the frequent one-fingered salutes I dished out so easily on the roadways at home. I was spoiled.
My new friend explained to me how things worked at the Monastery and why there were so many young boys there. Most of the boys were orphans from Tibet, he told me, and were part of the Monastery family until they got to be about eighteen-years-old. Upon reaching this age, each individual boy would have the option to either leave the monastery and go out into the world, not as a monk, but just a regular guy or they could choose to stay within the order. There was another location a reasonable walk away from here that was a similar set up for nuns. I was never invited over there, but during my visit I did see a few bald-headed chicks come over the to main monastery. I guess the Buddhists are down with women’s lib… right on.
While continuing our discussion, two really short, bald-headed, robe-wearing, kid monks were involved in a mock sword battle with sticks. All the boys of the monastery had a disciplined schedule of meditation, education and chores, but these two obviously had some free time. I was soon to learn the saying “boys will be boys” is appropriate in all languages all over the world.
I’m not sure where exactly the initial mock sword battle between the boys began, but they worked their way across the grounds and in front of the main Gompa, (the large spiritual gathering building). The mock battle intensified and the wood swords sliced back and forth through the air as one midget swordsman gained ground on the other. Back and forth across the grounds they now battled, directly in front of a tall ceremonial building with a huge 15-foot high prayer wheel inside. The building had stairs on the outside that lead to the flat roof. On top of the flat roof over the giant door where two beautiful, life-sized, gold-covered deer statues facing each other. One swordsman began to gain ground and the other started to back up the stairs of the colorful ceremonial building. As they made their way up the open-air stairs I lost sight of them for a minute. The boys reappeared on top of the flat roof. Quickly the battle ended, evidently the boys had tired of swordplay.
Taking a break from combat, one of them decided to ride one of the deer statues. Jumping atop the beautiful gold covered deer, hanging on to an antler, with his feet dangling at the deer’s side, he swings his wood sword above his head like a cavalryman on charge. At about this time the monk in charge of the young boys discipline walks into the yard and sees the boys playing. I’m new here, but I am thinking even for these patient guys, riding sacred objects is a huge infraction. The young cavalryman sees Discipline Monk, (who looks somewhat like a Monk Nanny), about the same time that I do. The priceless statue he is riding begins to shift inward toward the center of the flat roof, falling in an unnatural, cringing and hair-raising fashion.
I had expected to experience time slowing down while here, but not in this way. Time almost stopped as the golden deer, obviously broken, begins to fall under the rider’s weight. The slow motion expression on the little cavalryman’s face turns from joy to terror as he rides the collapsing artifact to its demise. Watching in shock with an open jaw, I think to myself, “Man, that kid is toast!”
Sure enough Disciplinary Monk begins running toward the building. Picking up speed, he takes the stairs three at a time. Appearing on the rooftop he looks to be a giant compared to the little boys. He grabs the cavalryman by the back collar of his robe, stands him up and checks for damage. The boy is physically OK and Disciplinary Monk begins to have words with the boys. Being so far away I could not hear what was being said, however, I was close enough to see the international finger wag and the boys’ heads held low in shame. I knew there was trouble.
The Head Monk of the Monastery has almost magically appeared. He must have see that something was going on up on the roof of the building, along with the now-dead golden deer statue lying on its side. Standing just outside the entrance to the large prayer wheel and looking up, he had attracted the attention of the Disciplinary Monk. Hearing the Head Monk approach, the Disciplinary Monk looks over the edge of the roof and a conversation begins. There is obviously interest in what is going on and Disciplinary Monk turns his back to boys and looks down at Big Cheese Monk.
The boys still hold their heads low in shame.
From atop the roof, with his back still to the little boys, Discipline Monk can’t stop a huge smile which is growing from ear to ear. He clears his throat and tells the story of the boy’s adventures to Big Cheese Monk. As the Head Big Cheese Monk listens, he begins to laugh out loud, so much so he bends over from laughing so much. I am amazed. The older Monks are laughing at the situation, not angry, not frustrated that their priceless artifact has been damaged, just laughing. The Disciplinary Monk wipes the smile off of his face and turns around for an additional short finger wag and verbal chastising and then turns back around to smile and laugh with the Big Cheese Monk. There was a feeling that both the older monks really enjoyed the antics of the boys and even though what they had done was wrong and the boys were in trouble and would be punished, the older men were filled with patience and compassion for the young boys.
Watching in amazement I wondered what type of swordplay mishaps the two older monks had experienced in their youth. What type of memories were going through their heads as they put themselves in those boy’s shoes. I also considered that the outcome would most likely be very different if a kid at home in the States had broken a valuable statue in a similar way. Not having their Mom and Dad around was a tragedy for these kids, but I really felt that they were in good hands.
Experiencing how these Monks lived allowed my fear of their unknown and mysterious lives to melt away. They were just people doing the best they could and really trying to look at life in a big-picture way and contribute to life through small day-to-day acts. I realized that what we learned from each other was open and true. When we want to learn and we are open, there is no need for fear.
By the way, I was successful in obtaining my subversive goal. However, by the time I obtained that goal it was no longer a subversive. I will always remember receiving that heart felt, smiling with a light snarl, “tank yu, tank yu berry mush.” I think my new friend meant it. I know I did.