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GET THEE TO A MONASTERY

By  December 4, 2015

Do you ever feel that you are always searching for something? Even at our happiest, the fleeting moment subsides, and the search continues for the next moment. We’ve been told that without purpose in life, happiness is short-lived. But to find our purpose, our meaning, we need to ‘know thyself’. It sounds like a simple concept, but I must have missed this class at St Joseph’s High. I didn’t discover my purpose then, I definitely had no idea of who I was or what I was capable of, and twenty years later I still have no idea. A lot of time had passed, but I finally decided to begin my search and after a period of deliberation and procrastination it dawned on me, what better place to start than at a Buddhist monastery?

My attention is drawn back to the meditation hall. I hear the grating scratches of wooden brooms sweeping concrete paths. Bird calls fill the morning air from the coo of pigeons to the caw of crows. The nearby city, Kathmandu, reminds you ‘I’m still here’: distant hammering, clanging bells and muffled horns, drowned out by the occasional drone of an airplane. Although surrounded by a fortress of cushions my ankles and feet still hurt. Cross-legged is an unnatural position for me. The gentle, soothing voice of the Israeli monk awakens us from our thoughts. He is one of 400 Buddhist monks, the Sangha, housed at Kopan Monastery, ‘a Buddhist monastery in the Tibetan tradition’. He readjusts his saffron robe and yellow undergarment and addresses the attentive, mainly bohemian, crowd.  Appropriately today’s daily Dharma talk is based around the question ‘Who am I?’

Photo 1. The Dharmachakra flanked by two deer is the symbol traditionally seen on all Tibetan monasteries

Photo 1. The Dharmachakra flanked by two deer is the symbol traditionally seen on all Tibetan monasteries

My life since high school seemed to lack direction. My grades were adequate enough to get me into university, but not into Medicine. A year in Science working towards a Dentistry degree deterred me from this career path. What was left to try? Since enrolling into civil engineering everything seemed to fall into place. I graduated with second class honours spent two years working in Australia and then moved and worked around the world including London, Calgary, Abu Dhabi and Toronto. I had a successful career and during that time I thought I met someone I wanted to spend the rest of my life with. I married her but in less than five years we were divorced. This life event sent me reeling and with forty fast approaching I realised that I never found my purpose and I wasn’t really that happy.

The search for purpose and meaning has been contemplated by early philosophers like Socrates, Plato, and Confucius. This yearning for meaning occurs strongest at major transitions in life like adolescence or mid-life. My mid-life crisis was amplified by the breakdown of my marriage. Prompted by my misfortune I quit my job in search of purpose. Initially I adopted my old habits of beachside debauchery however this did little to resolve the emptiness within me.

Uncertainty plagued me; where do I begin my search? The success of Elizabeth Gilbert’s book Eat, Pray, Love and the subsequent movie starring Julia Roberts is one of the many stories that have encouraged women onto the path of self-discovery. And although I can draw parallels with Gilbert’s story (I’ve only read the synopsis) there is a lack of literature that encourages men towards the same path of self-discovery (and I apologize if I say this out of ignorance).

With little encouragement and direction and following many unsuccessful google searches I stumbled across Kopan Monastery unaware of its popularity. The webpage drew me in and I enthusiastically booked my accommodation.

There is a lack of literature that encourages men towards the same path of self discovery

Kopan Monastery, established in 1970, sits upon a hilltop overlooking the city of Kathmandu.  To the south Nepal’s only international airport is the backdrop to the nearby Boudhanath Stupa. For the majority of the year, in addition to the monks, the monastery accommodates guests enrolled on courses, or as in my case unenrolled on a private stay, to be alone. Typically every year the last two weeks in April are course free. With my request accepted I made the pilgrimage to the hilltop.

On arrival at the monastery I felt like I didn’t fit in. I grew up as a Roman Catholic, went to a Catholic school, had never spent time in a monastery and knew little of Buddhism. I’d not be described as alternative or bohemian. I’d never wear elephant print pants. But I was willing to explore an option to help me find purpose, happiness and inner-peace.

A few days into my stay I had established a regular routine based around the grumblings of my stomach. Breakfast was served at 7:30 A.M., lunch at 11:30 A.M., tea at 5:00 P.M., and dinner at 6:30 P.M. The vegetarian-only meals were ample and varied, typically containing some form of dhal, and chai tea in the afternoons was a treat. In-between mealtimes the majority of the activity occurred in the morning. You would customarily hear the murmur of monks chanting at 8:00 A.M., the shouting and clapping of young monks debating philosophy in the main courtyard at 9:00 A.M., and the daily Dharma talks and meditation were held at 10:00 A.M.

I discovered this was a perfect place to escape from the outside world; gompas, a library and a stupa garden provide quiet areas for reflection. There are two gompas (buildings reserved for meditation). The main gompa, where monks conduct their morning prayer, catches your gaze as you enter through the main gates. The other gompa is named after Chenrezig the thousand arm Buddha of Compassion. Chenrezig gompa is located toward the rear of the grounds and is used for daily Dharma talks and all-day, guest meditation. In front of the main gompa, next to reception, the well-equipped library provides a peaceful area to read and research and a gift shop occupies the lower floor. Behind the main gompa the well-groomed stupa garden is a peaceful haven to enjoy the sun. Two stupas stand within the garden each adorned by a multitude of miniature Buddhas and are regularly circumambulated clockwise as is etiquette. At all other times I could be found within the confines of my single room.

Photo 2. The stupa garden provided a quiet area for reflection

Photo 2. The stupa garden provided a quiet area for reflection

My basic single room was furnished with cupboards, a desk and lamp and a single bed hemmed into one corner. The thin mattress and pillow encouraged an early rise. The shower and toilet were confined to a wet room. With the door open, the door curtain, emblazoned with the endless knot symbol, flapped in the wind and the room provided a cool retreat from the sun. With the Dalai Lama’s Power of Compassion completed I tackled the next book weighing down my backpack Monbourquette’s How to Discover Your Personal Mission.

Photo 3. My door curtain emblazoned with the endless knot symbol

Photo 3. My door curtain emblazoned with the endless knot symbol

During my stay I was exposed to friendly, respectful people, inspired by stories of transformation, and witnessed acts of genuine empathy. On the morning of my last day we were treated to an emotional welcome home ceremony for Lama Zopa. On this fateful day[1], as prayers and blessings are exchanged it was hard not to notice the genuine happiness of each individual and in some cases tears of joy.

Photo 4. Welcome home Lama Zopa

Photo 4. Welcome home Lama Zopa

In my search for purpose and happiness I stumbled across Kopan Monastery. I was in unfamiliar territory and uncertain whether I belonged. Sticking to a daily routine I became comfortable in my environment and was provided with ample time to reflect and contemplate. The monastery was the perfect sanctuary to explore my many questions regarding life and begin my journey of self-discovery. During my stay I started to realise that even though I considered the majority of the guests hippies they were here for similar reasons: to find their own happiness. I haven’t found all the answers and my search still continues however one small step has opened the door to many other opportunities that could help me finally discover true happiness.

~ Jesse Gerwien

Footnotes

[1] On 25 April 2015 the April 2015 Nepal Earthquake strikes with a magnitude of 7.8 killing over 9000 people. Refer to post ‘A Day I’ll Never Forget: Nepal Earthquake’ retelling my own personal experience.

Kopan Monastery, Kathmandu, Nepal

Tuesday, 21 April 2015 to Saturday, 25 April 2015

Stayed: accommodation is within the grounds; cost for a single room with private facility including full board is approximately US$15 per night. Credit card payments accepted although attract a 3% charge.

Webpage for Kopan Monastery (http://www.kopanmonastery.com/) provides guidelines for all types of visits including day visits and other practical information like taxi costs and dress code.

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