Kopan Monastery – Introductory Buddhism Course
Some time ago, I read an article on the Internet about the Introductory Buddhism Course from Kopan Monastery. I immediately searched for details about the course on their website, filled out the application form, and reserved a spot. I was eager to learn about Buddhism within an authentic environment. The Tibetan landscapes with Buddhist monasteries lost in high snowy mountains always attracted me. I truly wanted to experience the lifestyle of a Buddhist monastery. Kopan Monastery wasn’t located in 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, though.
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 asked the taxi driver to come and pick me up in front of the hotel. The following hour, we were lost and drowned in the urban, chaotic, and heavy traffic of Kathmandu. The downside was that I still had to wear a pollution mask even inside the cab. Eventually, we reached the luxurious Monastery of Kopan situated in a poor and dusty suburb of Kathmandu.
At Kopan Monastery, I had to face different questions: “Why are you here?” asked Mijua, the Polish who was thinking to take a break 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 had enrolled in the Buddhism Course at the Kopan Monastery.
Kopan Monastery: the organization
The monastery had a colorful gateway, a reception on the right side of the entrance, and a shop with 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 located going down another group of stairs (on the left side of the garden).
On 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). 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 on the monastery grounds, called Tashi Khang, situated on a terrace with a 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 any way 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 stay in total silence during the ten days of the course had to wear this ribbon.
We had three teachers for the Introductory Buddhism Course at Kopan Monastery. Ani Karin was the course leader – a Swedish Buddhist nun, who had come to the monastery forty years ago after she had been traveling the world for two years. Then, 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 Italy. And 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. Or, 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 at home.
I had experience meditating and knew meditating had a positive effect on me. For this reason, I wanted to experience deeper meditations at Kopan Monastery. Meditation changes our minds, and we see things differently. 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 have liked to not suffer ever again in my life, but I was realistic and knew that I was still far away from that level.
For the first six days of the course, we had discussion groups. Ani Karen divided us into groups of ten people. We met and discussed predetermined topics, already written down on a piece of paper by her. At the beginning of our meetings, we were ten 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 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. Or maybe I missed exactly that teaching. I felt like a monster. And I hadn’t come for that at the monastery, for sure. I put an end to everything that I heard during the course and asked around me. Some classmates were still levitating, others began to revolt too and skip the classes, while others even left the course and the monastery for good. They didn’t resonate with these teachings either …
In the last days, I began to skip regularly Ani Karin’s classes when she started to tell us standardized conclusions at the end of the meditations. 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 have reached 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 any more. Moreover, Ani 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 … a lot.
Also, Lyne, the Australian mother who had come to 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 would leave from the monastery. Nonsense, I couldn’t find a place to eat a real steak in Nepal!
Kopan Monastery: rituals
On the last 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.
In 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 minds 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. Synchronizing small steps with the 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 classmate had the idea to create a large circle with all 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 who hadn’t had the time to know all other one-hundred-and-fifty participants at 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 at the same time. I learned something I wasn’t expecting when I came to the monastery – 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 kinds of meditations. Moreover, I satisfied my curiosity and also achieved my goal: to live in a Buddhist monastery for ten days.
On 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 travelogue about my stay at a Buddhist Monastery on the outskirts of Kathmandu for ten days. You can find the version of this post in Romanian at ‘Curs introductiv de Budism – Manastirea Kopan, Nepal‘. If you want to read more about the trip through Nepal, here are all the Travelogues from Nepal (x12).
Have you ever stayed in a Buddhist Monastery or plan to go to one? Leave a comment below this post and tell me what you liked about staying in a Buddhist Monastery or what you are interested to experience there.
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