19 December 2012

Where Is My Mind? A Month at Kopan Monastery


Gonna get me some mantras on.

It is the night before the big silence starts, and I am tucked in safely into my bed. I decided to live large and spend 10 dollars per night (including 3 meals) for a luxe single room (instead of 5 dollars per night for a dorm bed the likes of which I slept in all of last month) and the privacy is lovely. I am using my MacBook one last time, indulging in Elliott Smith and a Twix bar.

Tomorrow the scary begins – endless hours spent with only myself for company (and man, I am one weird lady). A seven-day meditation on the Lam Rim, often referred to as the ‘Graduated Path to Enlightenment’ in the Tibetan tradition. I have spent the last month here at Kopan Monastery immersed in teachings on its 16 stages, and now for the real work  - the silent, weeklong meditation (taught by dis nun) that kind of seals the deal. It’s a chance to reflect and make sense of the thousands-year old teachings and to determine the best way to apply them to my life.

Therein lies the challenge. Last month’s teaching style was nothing like I predicted it would be. For a Western Buddhist who cut her teeth on Brad Warner, Noah Levine, Pema Chodron and Thich Nhat Hanh, it was kind of a shock. I encountered a version of Buddhism I had never imagined existed – a fiery hell’n’brimstone, ultra-conservative rendition of the Dharma that I love with all of my heart. Or at least, I thought I loved…  

Despite this being an introductory course taught by Westerners for Westerners (for which Kopan is famous) this year the emphasis was drawn away from the Dharma that I find helpful on a day to day basis – lovingkindness, compassion for oneself and others, equanimity towards all beings– and focused towards avoiding a rebirth in the hell realms. Now, like it or not, this hell stuff is a part of the Dharma. The thing is, most Western teachers are quite gentle with it, and the courses I have taken in Vancouver either avoided these bizarre topics or were quick to point out that they should be viewed metaphorically. This was not the case this November at Kopan.

Some of the most seasoned students were shocked at the almost evangelical tone of the teachings, and I too was quick to reactionarily revolt in my own mind. Sure, the guided meditations were blissful, but the actual teachings often made me feel angry. They seemed to list endless rules and conditions in which you would create “bad karma” – sex, indulging in food too gluttonously, intoxication, self-cherishing thoughts – that all guarantee that you will be reborn in the hell realms. For a Buddhist like me who doesn’t even know if they believe in literal definitions of reincarnation and karma the litanies of things that will land me a shitty rebirth was trying, to say the least, and contradictory to other teachings I have received

A character I created named Not-oft Amused Raccoon shows his feelings toward the teachings.

These teachings challenged me. My ego took over and I rolled my eyes in a patronizing way and dismissed entire concepts outright. I rejected a great deal of what was taught (anytime things got too supernatural), and I began to have a pretty major crisis of faith. I battled with the concepts – but ultimately I determined that I could still be Buddhist. I recognize that most of the behaviours and actions that will propel you into a “hell rebirth” are all pretty negative here in this life, too, and avoiding them will make me a better person for my friends, family and all sentient beings in general while I sort out exactly what I believe on the reincarnation front. This was, I told myself, just one lineage out of thousands within Tibetan Buddhism, not to mention the countless Mahayana traditions and the whole world of Theravada I have yet to explore! My belief in the science, psychology and basic truth of Buddhism, though shaken, remained strong.

Well, strong-ish. I still couldn’t wait for 30 days to be up and to get off this hill and return to Thamel with money jangling in my pocket, ready to order two fingers of scotch, rocks please. I counted the days, wanting to smoke cigarettes and wear make-up and flirt with boys and talk pop culture with the friends I made during the course (Hi girls!). I was ready for some worldly pleasure, yo. 

Before: Monastery Gals.

After: Thamel Babes.

And so as soon as the course ended I raced to “the real world,” and just as the teacher, Venerable Thubten Gyatso, had predicted – it was less than fulfilling, to say the least. I had (many) drinks and (many) cigarettes and danced the night away and it all seemed… kind of frantic and empty. The beer tasted like shit (this may be due to the fact that ALL NEPALI BEER TASTES LIKE BUDWEISER. Put an Oatmeal Stout or a Coffee Porter or a crazily bitter triple-hopped IPA in front of me and then see what I say) and the next day I felt terrible. I gave up on smoking. I stayed chaste. I abandoned my attachment to foo… (Ha! Almost got you there. I still love food. Gunna eat me so much random weird stuff in Bangkok so soon!)

Thamel, Kathmandu’s main backpacker ghetto, seemed more like a hellhole than ever, complete with glue-huffing 8 year olds and the thin ghosts of desperation and need lingering in doorways, trying to sell me opium. The internet, which I had been craving for weeks, seemed boring and flat and I didn’t much care about news or drama or even watching the final episodes of my beloved Gossip Girl. It all seemed so petty and external and pointless, so fucking dark and empty that I just wanted to go back to Kopan and meditate. (For real. WHO AM I? Gah.)

My few days in Thamel have proven to me that as I immerse myself deeper into Buddhist teachings something fundamental is subtly changing in my brain – so subtly that I didn’t even notice it happening while I was busy mocking and scoffing at the more esoteric teachings. Now I have to go digging around to find out what exactly it is that has changed.

Basically, I need a way to make sense of all of the conflicted and intense Buddhist psychology lessons of the previous month. Seven days of silent solitude filled with 9-10 hours of meditation, both guided and solo, seems like the perfect place to be right now.  I have a sneaking suspicion that some of the convoluted and “bizarre” teachings will seem less convoluted and insane when I sit with them.  No, no – that doesn’t believe I will ascribe to literal interpretations of spirit realms, but they’re sitting better with me as metaphors as time goes by. I think I can come to a place where I can still be comfortable and strong in my beliefs, even within this particularly strict tradition. 

This retreat shit ain’t easy, and while it may seem self-indulgent, it really isn’t - it is a step toward cultivating the stability, selflessness and mindfulness that I need in order to truly be able to help more people and to be a better friend, daughter and person in general. (<---- Do you see this? Man, it was way easier when I was resigned to just being a drunken dirtbag poet. Ugh. )

So here I am in bed, huddled under a yak wool blanket and listening to clandestine folk music. After a few days of space I realize that I don’t have to unquestioningly swallow all of the beliefs of one teacher. More importantly, I can now see that there was a fuck ton of extremely valuable information mixed within all the talk of Nagas and Hell Realms, information that my ego was tempted to dismiss outright because it didn’t fit into my preconceived notions of life. Silly ego.

Finally, no matter what understanding I come to, I have to remember that I am always free to use my own wisdom to interpret and follow the Dharma in the best way for me. Now I just hope that summa that wisdom comes to me while I have my bum on the cushion for the next seven days….

Your head will collapse
If there's nothing in it
And you'll ask yourself....


Amanda said...

Fuckn' fantastic writing and person.

WhiteCanvas said...

Great post. You are embarking on a scary yet rewarding journey. What a challenge! It may be something I need to do soon :)

WhiteCanvas said...

Great post! What a scary yet seemingly rewarding journey your embarking.

Miss Em said...

I love this post! I have been thinking a lot about Buddhism recently..... Obviously there is something inside me that need it...Just need to pluck up the courage to do the "introduction to Buddhism course" at my local centre :)

green sensi said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
green sensi said...

Loving this. Interesting. Miss Em, i donot think it is necessary to go to Buddhism centre to learn about buddhism. :D