Some time ago, I read an article on the internet about an “Introductory Buddhism Course” at the Kopan Monastery. I had been planning a trip to Nepal and I thought it might be an interesting experience for me. I immediately researched the course on their website, filled out the application form, and reserved a spot for myself. I was eager to learn about Buddhism within an authentic environment. The Tibetan landscapes with Buddhist monasteries lost in the high, snowy mountains always attracted me, and I wanted to witness the lifestyle within a Buddhist monastery. Kopan Monastery wasn’t located in the mountains with huge rocks and bald eagles, as I would have liked, but rather on the outskirts of Kathmandu. However, Kopan still intrigued me.
Situated in a dusty and chaotic suburb of Kathmandu, Kopan Monastery surprised me with its luxurious gardens, colorful prayer wheels, and an imposing gompa – the main building where monks pray. When I arrived to the monastery, the courtyard was already full of people. As we lined up for check-in, more and more people arrived. Bustling from the sudden influx of participants, the noise and commotion of registration filled the monastery. And the dog of the monastery – the ‘Buddhist dog’ as the monks called it, sniffed the newcomers: Mexicans, Americans, Germans, French, Spanish, Australians, Canadians, etc. In total about a hundred-and-fifty people enrolled in the Buddhism Course. ‘This will be the experience of my life,’ I said to myself. ‘I would never meet so many people of different nationalities in one place.’
Intense, the program had a rigorous schedule: 6:00am tea, 6:45am meditation, 7:30am breakfast, 9:00am Buddhist teachings, 11:30am lunch, 2:00pm discussion groups, 3:00pm to 3:30pm break, 3:30pm more Buddhist teachings, 5:00pm tea, 5:45pm meditation, 6:30pm dinner, 7:30pm questions and answers, followed by more meditations. We weren’t allowed to communicate in any way to each other after dinner, not until the next day at noon. Therefore, we socialized only between lunch and dinner and focused more on ourselves, in hopes of obtaining the best results from our meditations. If someone wanted, they could participate in the extended version of ‘silence’ by wearing a yellow ribbon signifying ‘total silence.’ It could be worn by anybody who wanted to remain silent for the duration of the ten-day course.
There were three teachers: Ani Karin, the course leader and a Swedish-born Buddhist nun, came to the monastery forty years ago after she had traveled the world for two years. Joan, a Canadian Buddhist nun, also traveled the world for two years before becoming a Buddhist nun. For most of that time, she lived in Europe where she taught at Buddhist centers in Spain and in Italy. And Geshe, a Buddhist monk of the monastery, was invited to give us Buddhist teachings.
During the course, we participated in teachings, meditations, and for the first six days’ discussion groups. Ani Karin divided us into groups of ten people. Our eclectic groups let us exchange different opinions and learn from each other. In my group, Ryan, a happy Canadian photographer, had a job he liked very much. Nathan, also a Canadian, worked all over the world for the past four years and he spent the last six months in Australia, where he eventually wanted to return after visiting Nepal. Federico, an Italian, taught snowboarding for fifteen years, but after an accident, he made a career shift and is still searching for a job that will fulfill him. Rebeca, a teacher from Chicago, took a gap year to travel and volunteer around the world. Catherine, an English doctor, was traveling with her husband throughout Nepal and India for two months. Line, an Australian lady, came to the monastery with her two daughters, Ruby and Amy. Pete, from Scotland, had quit his job because he didn’t like it. Franc, a French man who lived in Costa Rica, came to the monastery to find his inner peace. John, from Catalonia, was at the monastery with his daughter, who lived in South-East Asia and invited him to visit her. And me, Iuliana, a travel writer and passionate explorer from Romania, was in Asia for the first time; curious to venture into and discover a different world, Buddhism.
During the first six days of the course, the ten of us met every afternoon for an hour to discuss the different words already written down on a piece of paper, Ani Karin’s pre-determined topics. The first day we discussed Buddhist teachings and the potential that each of us had for enlightenment. The second day, reincarnation and karma. The third day, precious human life and anger. The fourth day, attachment, faults, and the mistakes we see in others and in ourselves, too. The fifth day, death and spiritual practice. The sixth day, the relationship between suffering, ignorance, and karma. The following days we only had teachings and meditations in the main gompa and the last two days we experienced a ‘silent retreat,’ no talking to anyone at all.
The first few days, at the beginning of our discussion group, we were ten complete strangers, but over the course of the program we opened our hearts and confessed the most hidden parts of our souls. We had never talked about some of these things with anybody because of shame, fear of rejection, or fear of being judged by others. For me, it was the first time discussing very personal things with people from so many different parts of the world, both men and women. At first, I thought that they would have a different mentality and they wouldn’t understand my concerns, but I found myself quickly joining the “worldwide club.”
The varying discussions we had made me conclude that no matter where we came from, no matter what kind of experiences we had, we all faced the same kind of problems, sufferings, and challenges “on our own way to enlightenment.” What differed from one person to another was the context – places, times, names, facts, and each individual’s levels of understanding and acceptance of themselves and of their experiences as well. Each of us had varying solutions for the same kind of problem, and by discussing our issues, we learned more from each other and chose the best solution for ourselves in each specific moment. Discussing these themes every day with people from different countries, I realized how different we were in choosing our path through life. But at the same time, we all travel parallel roads – as Buddha says ‘toward enlightenment,’ and we would meet together at big and small crossroads of our lives.
Eventually, I chose to follow my own spiritual path that didn’t include practicing Buddhism. After ten days spent at a Buddhist monastery, I realized it didn’t work for me, at least not at that specific period in my life. However, this was my choice. Many of the other participants were happy to include Buddhism practices and meditations in their daily lives. For them, it worked. Even if we face the same problems in life, each of us has our own path, and what works for me in one moment, might not work at all for someone else. Maybe it will work a few years later, in a different context.
After our last meditation in the gompa, a fellow classmate suggested we create a large circle with all of the participants. We held hands, ran to the center of the circle, and gave each other a big group hug while exclaiming a universal “goodbye!” It was a big “goodbye” hug for those of us who did not have the time to get to know all one-hundred-and-fifty people. A monk, moved by our group hug, filmed the scene. I too was moved by such a creative, touching farewell, but on the other hand, I wanted to leave the monastery and move on with my experiences, meeting new people, and discovering Nepali culture.
Photos by author
Iuliana is a passionate explorer, travel writer, and blogger. Her life motto is simple: “We live only to discover beauty. All else is a form of waiting” (Kahlil Gibran). She currently lives in Sibiu, Romania, where she is writing for several Romanian and worldwide journals. Iuliana has a Master's degree in Architecture and a Doctorate in Heritage Tourism. In her writing, she focuses on the cultural aspects of her travels, with a special interest in the authentic experiences of a place.