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Building a Foundation
DHARMA AND THE MODERN WORLD
Student Mark Kacik offers some of his observations and lessons learned in Caves, Huts, and Monasteries: Finding the Deeper Self along the Footpaths of Asia, his book about his travels through Buddhist India, Nepal, Vietnam, and Korea. In this excerpt, he stumbles across the famous November course at FPMT’s Kopan Monastery in 2008.
As we near the Kathmandu Valley, the road becomes steeper, and I cringe as our wheels roll just inches from the precipitous edge. We finally reach the summit, which has a stunning view of the Kathmandu Valley. At 4,600 feet in altitude, Kathmandu is surrounded by 8,000-foot peaks. But the mammoth peaks—starting at 14,000 feet and rising to Mount Everest’s commanding 29,029-foot height—are hidden on the other side these “baby” mountains.
Boudhanath is a dense cluster of three-story apartments, guesthouses, family restaurants, and monasteries stitched together by narrow alleys. In the center of the city is an ancient stupa, a circular monument with a spherical dome, and a massive golden spire. Painted on the spire is a distinct pair of eyes that symbolize the Buddha in meditation. Colorful Tibetan prayer flags flutter in the wind; they’re believed to send goodwill to humanity. Devotees place fruit and money at the stupa and sit in meditation. Grey clouds of fragrant incense hover everywhere. Most striking, though, is the continuous flow of Tibetans who devotedly walk clockwise around the stupa, fingering prayer beads while singing or chanting. On the periphery, vendors sell religious artwork and handmade artifacts.
… For the next two days, I do nothing more than sit listening to and watching the people encircle the stupa. It’s a spiritually charged environment. There’s no flat-screen TVs, neon lights, billboards, or clever marketing ploys. No cars or other vehicles are permitted here. I feel a reprieve from commercialism, which enables me to shift my focus inward. On the bench next to me, an aging woman uses her wooden cane to scratch the back of a small cow lying at her feet. The cow’s eyes are closed in delight. I have an urge to hug this woman.
The alley at my guesthouse is home to a few beggars. I face the reality of poverty … and decide to act. A woman pleads with me to buy milk for her baby as a passerby shakes his head indicating—I think—that the woman is a farce. But I’d rather be deceived by someone not in need than ignore someone who’s truly needy, so I buy infant formula from a nearby shop and hand it to her. The mother seems grateful and invites me to visit her house for tea. My intuition tells me no, so I refuse, but she’s insistent. I politely refuse and walk away.
“No you good. No good!” she yells as I leave. I’m saddened. Was this a cultural misunderstanding?
The next day I come upon two nine-year-old boys, with pleading eyes and extended hands. I’m not about to hand money to children, but I have an idea.
“Okay. You want money?”
“Yes, yes!” they exclaim with delight, hands open and ready.
“You work. I give you money. Come with me.” I lead the way to an alley littered with trash. “You pick up garbage. Make clean. I come back one hour. If clean, I give thirty rupees each.” I assign one boy to each side.
They’re disappointed that there’s no free handout, but seem motivated to earn the cash. As I leave, I look back to see them busy working.
An hour later I find the alley much cleaner.
“Good. Very good, I like,” I say. They smile with pride as I pay them, adding a tip. They clasp their palms and bow. “Namaste,” they say, and run off in glee .…
It’s a sun-baked noontime when I leave for Kopan Monastery. As I hike, the dense groupings of gray, stone buildings in Boudhanath thin out, and become fields of rice. Women work the fields with sickles as men steer large oxen from behind a wooden plow. This is a land of contrasts: cell phones are used alongside centuries-old farming methods.
Along the way, I see a family of four sitting in their dirt yard around a stone altar. They’re offering a daily ritual of flowers and water. Devotion—the practice of honoring—is everywhere.
The quiet, narrow road drops into a valley and I glimpse the monastery on top of a small—in comparison—mountain. The broad rectangular structure, pale yellow with deep red trim, is surrounded by trees and bamboo stands. This will be my home for the next month. I’m a longtime Zen practitioner but know little about Tibetan Buddhism. I’ve read some of the Dalai Lama’s writings, I’ve even seen him speak. Impressed, I’m here to understand this tradition in greater depth.
I sweat profusely as I climb the steep trail. Two ten-year-old boys approach me and insist on carrying my duffel bag. When I arrive at the monastery somewhat spent, I offer them a tip, but they decline. “No sir. Happy to help,” they say smiling.
Surprised and impressed, I bow.
I’m a day early to settle in and get oriented. The office attendant, a monk in his twenties, wears the traditional maroon robes and a bright, spirited smile. “Is it raining outside?” he smirks, eyeing my sweat-soaked cotton shirt.
“Yes, it’s raining badly,” I join in. He smiles.
With some scribbling in his registry book, I’m given course materials and linens. A teenage monk escorts me to a four-person dorm room where I’m surprised to find one man already settled. He stands attentive as I enter.
“Hi, my name is Thinj,” he says pronouncing his name as ‘Thine.’ “I guess we’re roomies, eh?” He speaks with a thick European accent. His muscular tattooed arms bulge out of a tight tank top. He has a twelve o’clock shadow on his face and a shaved head. He’s thirty-something and looks intimidating. He’s a yoga instructor, fresh out of the military and on his way to Thailand to learn more yoga.
… At dinner the second night, I see a familiar face. It’s Jeffrey whom I met my first day in Delhi. We spent a day together touring and getting acclimated to the culture. This time Jeffrey suggests another adventure.
“I’m going to a monastery tomorrow morning, about a one-hour walk, where a nine-year-old boy will be enthroned as a reincarnation of a deceased lama. Since the course doesn’t start until later tomorrow, would you join me?”
“An enthronement!” I gasp. “Of course!”
Early the next morning, we hike through chilly, dense fog to the monastery, intermingling with locals flocking to the event. This enthronement is internationally significant; there’s a diverse crowd of formally dressed westerners, renowned lamas, an infinite number of maroon robed monks all mixed with casually dressed locals. The place buzzes with excitement as flashy new SUVs and Mercedes Benz limousines arrive with dignitaries.
Twenty monks assemble next to the entrance. Each monk plays a monotone note on a trumpet or horn. Other monks strike odd-shaped drums using arched sticks. On the temple roof, two monks blow into a pair of ten-foot-long brass and silver trumpets, called dungchens, while drums and cymbals clash with increasing tempo.
We’re directed to a large colorful tent with folding chairs and a video screen. The procession begins outside with the young boy seated upon an elaborate golden throne resting on poles carried by monks. Once inside the monastery, the boy sits on an oversized golden throne, fully aware that he’s the center of attention.
For the next hour, the boy sits with impressive calmness while a series of lamas, monks, and officials give Dharma talks in Tibetan. A procession then forms to place gifts at the throne: polished conch shells, Buddha sculptures, books, flowers, and a small mountain of incense.
Finally, the head lama begins an hour-long session of deep, monotone chanting and the temple reverberates. The grandeur and pomp of this ceremony rivals those in the English monarchy.
Hiking back to Kopan, Jeffrey says, “That boy will have his own personal teachers and great effort will be put to transferring knowledge from the best teachers of our day. What is really great about it is that he will readily absorb his teachings since he is a reincarnated lama. He will quickly pick up where he left off in his last life.”
“Do you really believe he’s a reincarnation of a lama?” I ask.
“Certainly! That boy was selected from many children. He was put through numerous tests to discern if he is a reincarnated lama. Typically the children will be asked to pick out personal belongings from their previous life. Often the examiners will lay out a half-dozen different eyeglasses and the child will pick out the correct pair. The Dalai Lama, when only a little toddler, picked out his correct eyeglasses and walking cane from a large assortment. Even at Kopan there was a young reincarnated lama who led examiners to his previous room at the monastery. There are many accounts that substantiate this. Yes, I do believe,” Jeffrey says.
As the course begins, there’s more than two hundred attendees—Westerners of all ages and walks of life. Venerable Dondrub is seated at a colorful altar of sorts, and participants sit on the floor on meditation cushions. Some of Ven. Dondrub’s material grabs my attention like a magnet. Sometimes, though, discussions on ritual and religious aspects of the tradition leave me struggling to keep my eyes open.
A 5:30 a.m. bell rings and I jump from my sleeping bag and sprint across the hall for a shivering cold shower. Each day is filled with three hours of teaching, brief sessions of guided meditation, discussion groups, and an optional, early morning session of one hundred prostrations.
We learn the fundamental principles of Tibetan Buddhism: the concepts of impermanence, loving compassion, respect for your teachers, death and rebirth, and karma. Of the four traditions of Tibetan Buddhists: Gelugpa, Kagyupa, Nyingmapa, and Sakyapa, Kopan is of the Gelugpa tradition, which is widely known for its analytical approach. Sam, the English Buddhist I met in Boudhanath, told me that Gelugpa should blend well with engineering. He was right. The teachings are analytical and detailed.
We spend several days discussing reincarnation, a concept I’ve not yet come to accept. But reincarnation has a profound impact on Buddhist perspective because, when viewing life in the context of infinite lifetimes, one acquires a more sensitive outlook not just to other humans, but to all creatures. Tibetan Buddhists believe that having been reincarnated an infinite number of times, each person, each animal in fact, was at one time or another, our mother and we must therefore treat all beings with love. And since accumulating bad karma could result in an animal form of rebirth, we come to appreciate how extraordinarily rare and precious it is to be born human. I’m gaining a richer appreciation for each breath of life.
“Our lives have no guarantees,” says Venerable Dondrub, an Australian-born monk, the course leader. “Most of us can easily say ‘I’ll die someday,’ but it’s really quite different to say ‘I’m prepared to die at this moment’.”
Quite a struggle—is more like it. “Our life is hanging by a silk thread,” he goes on. “The thread of life can snap at any instant: a bomb, earthquake, heart attack, or accident.” I feel the significance settling in. If I live every day, every moment in fact, as if death were imminent—as if my heart were to fail this instant—would I act with greater intention?
Tibetan Buddhists are sometimes criticized for their focus on death—of taking such a negative perspective. I don’t see it that way. Why put blinders on? “But what that focus does,” Jeffrey says at dinner, “is drive home true realization of our mortality and expose the uncertainty of the time of our death. We then execute our daily actions with greater precision.”
Okay, so I’m not facing the reality of death with the sense of urgency that it deserves. Not in the way that I’d face it should a physician tell me, “This scan shows a large tumor on your brain.” The subject feels uncomfortable to me but I recognize the value of focusing on it.
Jeffrey challenges me to meditate on death. “Dedicated monks will spend a years meditating on it,” he says. He suggests that I visualize my last moments, my last thoughts, and my last breath. “This helps us be more prepared when that last breath arrives.”
… My roommates and I have stimulating discussions every evening.
“Why do we turn great teachings into religions?” Thinj complains. “The Buddha was a great teacher of mastering the mind. But man has added deities, bowing, dogma, chanting, and blazing colors to his teachings. Same for Jesus. His teachings are sensible, and easy to understand. Why does man then embed layers of rules and regulations?”
Before anyone can respond he continues, “And this karma thing is too complex. Why focus on clearing bad karma from previous lives and creating good karma for future lives? I say we should focus on this life—now. I don’t know about my next life or even if there will be one. But I do know about this life, here and now. I think it’s much simpler to ‘Do unto others as you wish them to do unto you.’”
“Thinj,” I say, “I understand. But what if reincarnation is reality? What if your next life is impacted by what you do in this life? Doesn’t it make sense to prepare?”
“Sure, I’ll prepare but for a different reason,” Thinj says. “I believe in goodness, I believe in being good here and now, for this life.”
“It sounds like it makes no difference whether you believe in reincarnation or not,” Drew interjects. “Your behavior’s the same. You say you’ll perform good actions for the benefits of this life. The Buddhists say to do the same but for the benefit of your next life. It’s the same action, just different intentions.”
John joins in. “It’s the same action, but you take it more seriously if you believe you’ll be reborn into a lower life if you have bad karma.” John’s a quiet guy and a deep thinker. He’s the type of guy you listen to because you know his words have been well thought out. “With the potential consequence of being reborn as, say a dog, a whole different focus is placed on this life and the good or bad karma we create. I think we take our actions much more seriously if we believe karma affects our next rebirth.”
Thinj is not convinced. “This sounds too much like Catholic guilt,” he says. “‘If you misbehave you’re going to hell!’ I was raised that way and don’t believe it. Why don’t we just focus on what we’re doing now?”
“I was raised Catholic and know what you mean, Thinj,” I say. “Karma raises similar guilt feelings.”
“Same here,” says Drew. “I rebelled when I reached an independent age. That drove me to look at other religions and find Buddhism.”
John is quietly engaged. “We must be careful not to meld past experiences into the current issue or let our upbringing influence us. Otherwise, we can misjudge any Buddhist teaching that puts consequences on our actions saying it sounds like imposed guilt. I also had a Catholic upbringing, but I must not let that influence every decision.”
“I’m not doing that,” Thinj says, getting defensive. “I’m just saying it sounds similar and wrong.”
A thoughtful silence descends as we lie in our bunks. I relish the way the four of us interact. The tempo is sometimes rapid, perhaps even heated, but we respect one another and anger plays no significant role. No dominant ego steers the discussion. Thinj is open, honest, and uninhibited; he speaks his mind clearly yet respectfully. Drew gives a more humble perspective, with a touch of idealism. John has almost a priestly quality, filled with faith; he is deeply intellectual. I may be learning as much snuggled in my sleeping bag each evening as I do from the course itself.
Mark S. Kacik is a spiritual seeker who has traveled the world studying local religious practices and customs, from which came his book Caves, Huts, and Monasteries: Finding the Deeper Self along the Footpaths of Asia. His Buddhist practice has been significantly influenced by Tibetan, Vipassana, Japanese Zen, Vietnamese, and Korean traditions alike. Kacik is deeply grateful to Lama Zopa Rinpoche, Ven. Thubten Dondrub, and the entire FPMT organization for the incredibly rich spiritual offerings they offer to all beings!
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