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‘She Is Not Looking for Another Man’
ROAD TO KOPAN
After traveling through Southeast Asia to Nepal and eventually stumbling across a photo of an “exquisite thangka” of Buddha Shakyamuni in 1974 in a photo shop near Freak Street, the well known haunt for hippies and travelers in Kathmandu during the 1970s, Swede Karin Valham took a chance on a meditation course on Kopan Hill and found the “most wonderful experience” of her life. She would become a nun just one year later.
After about one-and-a-half years of traveling around Southeast Asia in 1973-74 – through Sri Lanka, India, Bangladesh, Thailand, Malaysia, Indonesia and Australia ‒ I ended up in a cave among the hippies on Lamaro Beach in Darwin. From there, I followed a well trodden path, even then, to Nepal on what I thought was my way back to Sweden. My journey, which was supposed to have lasted only six months, again became even longer. I was looking for something that I couldn’t find in the outside world; it was all very confusing.
Arriving in Kathmandu by bus from India, we were taken by a rickshaw driver to a room next to the large stupa in Thahity Chowk. The room was not that good and without a shower, but I liked it because of the stupa view. I had enjoyed the presence of Buddha images from the very beginning of my journey when I landed in Sri Lanka and saw my first Buddha statue, life-size and smiling at everyone.
The next few days I explored the surroundings and went to the post office. Going to the post office always took up a great deal of time in those days. That was where you kept in touch with people from home ‒ receiving mail poste restante and sending endless postcards and airograms. On the way from the post office to Freak Street, where we had moved, we passed by Das Photoshop. The owner seemed to know all of the goings on in the city and was very chatty. On the wall of the shop hung a large black and white photo of an exquisite thangka painting depicting Shakyamuni Buddha. On my long journey, as I already mentioned, I had grown very fond of Buddha images. I was drawn to them and always felt happy to see the perfect body and that half-smile that seemed to reveal an inner wisdom beyond this world. Earlier in my journey, I had gone to Borobodur in Java three times. I could not get enough of just being in the presence of the Buddha images there and the carvings of the whole path to enlightenment on the surrounding temple walls, even though I did not understand it.
I asked the friendly owner in Das Photoshop where that picture was taken and he told me it was “from Kopan Monastery outside Boudhanath and, by the way, they are starting a meditation course; maybe you should go there.”
I had a wish in the back of my mind to learn to meditate ever since I had visited Wat U Mong, a well known monastery in Chang Mai in Northern Thailand. It was a beautiful monastery with many small buildings and even a manmade lake with swans. Some of it was still being built. I especially remember one building full of paintings on the walls by monks who had been doing retreat in the monastery. One was of a man lying in the lion posture of the Buddha, but with the interior of his body depicted as full of all sorts of desire-garbage. Inside his head you could see bottles of alcohol and playing cards and smoke. Inside his heart was a beautiful woman in a dreamlike landscape. Inside the lower part of his body was a burned-out battlefield with tree stumps and fires burning. It touched me; I could relate to that and I thought that meditator was very honest about his garbage.
My boyfriend Josef and I decided to go to Kopan and join the meditation course. It was November 1974. We took the bus to Boudhanath and walked up the hill. I remember arguing with Josef the whole way, saying that the course was too long – one month – and that maybe we could find a shorter course. He was more eager than I was. I had been starting to feel homesick, and Nepal was my last stop before returning to Sweden to do something more useful with my life. My journey had taught me a lot, but I was tired of traveling and felt the need to put my life together.
When we arrived, the course had already started a few days earlier and all the participants were meditating in a large round tent. Right there at the front of the tent was “my” thangka of Shakyamuni Buddha, even more beautiful in color. About 150 people, mostly young travelers, were sitting in meditation like little angels so peacefully and quiet. At a closer look, I recognized some of the people I had met in Freak Street at the coffee houses where the joints were almost free and you could even have a hash cookie with your tea or coffee. I was amazed.
We were accommodated on the second floor of Norbulinka, which were the monks’ quarters. They had moved together into one part of the house and opened up spaces for us visitors. I was sharing a space with two other girls sleeping on the floor on straw mats. My possessions by then were reduced to what fit into a small Australian school bag and not much bedding. It was quite cold at night and Josef had given me his only blanket, so he used to sneak in next to me at night to sleep – he was freezing too. I told the office about our problem, and Ven. Nicole from Canada gave me one of her own quilts. That saved me. I was so grateful.
The meditation course turned out to be the most wonderful experience in my life. Ven. Nick was leading the course, and I thought he was the funniest man I had met in a long time. He skillfully diffused almost any potential friction or problem during the course with his good sense of humor, and we laughed a lot. Lama Zopa Rinpoche was teaching twice a day. All I remember from my first course was the long karma stories that sort of made sense to me. But the best was yet to come. Rinpoche’s sincerity, purity of mind and genuine way of life was awesome. Rinpoche’s and Lama’s teaching instantly became very personal. I was sitting way at the back having come late and I was thinking they were talking to me, describing my life problems and giving me advice how to solve them by practicing Dharma. Lama Yeshe’s loving kindness helped us believe in ourselves and our potential as human beings. When he talked about “the fantasy projection of our dualistic mind,” I knew exactly what he meant. I had found what I was looking for ‒ the Dharma ‒ and I wanted to become more like Rinpoche and Lama.
Towards the end of the course, I decided to stay on and attend the one-month lam-rim meditation retreat following the course, led by Ven. Marcel. Josef didn’t like that idea. He was ready to move on, but I felt I had just started something very important in my life. He went to see Lama Yeshe to complain that they were taking me away from him. Lama Yeshe called me up to his room to hear my version of the story; he wanted to hear everything. Then Lama Yeshe called us both up to his room together. While Josef and I were each trying to make our point heard, arguing our case, Lama Yeshe was rolling around on his bed with laughter and exclaimed, “I love you both.”
At the end, Lama took a khata, draped it around Josef’s neck, gave him a blessing and said to him, “She is not looking for another man. Don’t worry we will look after her.” Suddenly, Josef calmed down and could accept the inevitable. We stayed in contact and he returned the next year to see me become a Buddhist nun.
After ordaining, Ven. Karin Valham served FPMT as spiritual program coordinator for Chenrezig Institute in Eudlo, Australia; Tushita Mahayana Meditation Centre, in New Delhi, India; and Himalayan Yogi Institute in Kathmandu, Nepal. In 1983, she invited Lama Yeshe to Sweden. Currently, she serves as resident teacher at Kopan Monastery.
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