May 2008


Hi everybody – Well after ten days of R&R in Kathmandu, we think (hope) we’ve assimilated our Kopan experiences enough to at least try sharing something with you here.

Kopan Monastery sits high on top of a hill overlooking the Kathmandu valley.  (In the foreground you can see the associated Kopan Nunnery.)  It is another world, far away from the chaos and bustle of Kathmandu itself.

Above the entrance to every monastery and gompa (sanctuary) are two deer gazing at the dharma wheel.  The deer are there to remind you that the space you’re entering is a peaceful haven for ALL creatures; once you’re on monastery grounds, it is not ok to harm any creature, even a bug. (That’s why Kate had to let that mosquito bite her.)

Kopan is home to over seven hundred monks, nuns, and Lamas (master teachers), most of whom have escaped from Tibet.  They are all ages, ranging from 4 to 94. Chanting begins at dawn and typically continues into the night.  (On Friday night it was hard to get to sleep due to the extra-late chanting and drumming; Friday Monk Rave?)  The young monks study Buddhist texts and learn Buddhist principles from the Lamas, and then test their knowledge (and each other) by debating.

While it is hard to capture the spiritual and cognitive changes we experienced in this blog, we can report that it was very intense indeed.  Every day for ten days we rose at 5:30am and had tea in silence, followed by an hour of meditation guided by Ani Wy, a nun originally from Tasmania.  Then we had breakfast, also in silence, followed by a morning of instruction in Tibetan Buddism with our teacher Ani Karin, originally from Sweden, who first came to Kopan in 1974 and stayed to become a nun and teacher.  (“Ani” means “Auntie,” like how Catholic nuns are called “Sister” or “Mother.”)  Then we ate lunch, after which we could finally talk. (Actually, for your somewhat shy friends Derry and Kate, the silent time was quite welcome!)

In the afternoon we met in small groups of 10 with a discussion leader (four small groups, so about 40 people total) and tried to make sense of it all.  Then there was more teaching by a Lama of the monastery.  At first it was hard to understand him; he would close his eyes and out would come a non-stop flow of subtle ideas.  Our western minds struggled and balked at this stream-of-consciousness teaching style at first.  Then we went through a shift in perspective – from a knee-jerk ‘customer’ mentality (“This person is not providing this service in the way we expect!”), to realizing “Holy smoke, here’s a Tibetan Buddhist Lama willing to spend 90 minutes each afternoon sharing his expertise with us!”  We stuck with him and are very glad we did.

After this was five o’clock tea, followed by another hour of meditation, and then, after the evening meal, a final hour of meditation and discussion.  We were usually sound asleep by 9:30 PM.  This is our building: Kate and I stayed in separate rooms, as required, each with two roommates.

On the floor below our rooms was the gompa (sanctuary) where all of our meditation sessions and classes took place. We sat for several hours each day on meditation pillows in the lotus position (or an approximation thereof).  Ouch!  We had to keep adding pillows to try to assuage the pain in our nonflexible American knees.  Behind the picture of the Dalai Lama is a statue of Shakyamuni Buddha.  Notice the string of green lights around his head (an offering from a young monk), which flashed on and off constantly while we meditated.

At first our monkey brains got in the way, much like this guy, who liked to hang out around the gompa and get in trouble.

After several sessions of meditation, however we began to experience….emptiness!

Well, almost.

One of the challenges to our western notions of “reality” was the first hand experience monks, nuns, and lamas have had of “higher beings” and “reincarnation”.  This Lama, Lama Konchok, passed away about five years ago at Kopan.  His “Buddha-nature” was considered by all to be particularly well-realized.  He had meditated in a cave high the the Himalayas for over twenty five years before coming to Kopan.

When he died, he continued to meditate for seven days (he remained in the lotus position and rigor mortis did not set in, although he had stopped breathing and his heart had stopped beating.) When he finished meditating, his body was cremated on the grounds of the Monastery in a huge pyre that burned for three days.  When the fires died down, many relics were found in the ashes.  We were allowed to visit his room, where hundreds of these relics were on display.  This unburned rib has spontaneously begun to produce many pearl-like spheres: the newest one (still growing) is visible on the bone.

A beautiful and ornate stupa was built where he was cremated.  (We can’t think of an English word for ‘stupa’- here’s a picture.)

Tibet Buddhists believe in reincarnation, and believe that higher beings, like Lama Konchok and the Dalai Lama, choose where they will be reborn.  Lama Konchok chose to be born as this little guy, Phuntsok Rinpoche.  (‘Rinpoche’ means ‘reincarnated one.’)

He lives and studies at Kopan, and while he is a playful little four-year-old who loves gummy bears and sports bright orange Crocs, there is also something about him that is well, different.  Derry met him on a path one day, and the child looked deeply into Derry’s eyes with a directness that was arresting.

The value of our experience at Kopan was not just in learning ABOUT Buddhism, but bumping up against it with our own habitual ways of thinking and of seeing the world.  Experientially, we got to learn (yet again) a basic truth undergirding all Buddhist philosophy:  The only reality that I get to access is the one that I access through my senses, process through my brain, and interpret through my mind.  There may be an ‘objective’ reality out there, independent of me, but that’s not the reality I get to experience; I experience the version that I myself help create by layering on my own perceptual limitations, expectations, interpretations, delusions….  And the same is true for everybody else.  (This would help explain why two people can look at the same evidence and come to different conclusions.)  The amazing thing is that I myself, through effort, can learn to apply my conscious attention – especially if I practice as diligently as an athlete or musician – to notice, question, and even change my current expectations, interpretations, delusions.  And changing that lens changes the reality that I get to experience.  And maybe THAT changes the way I go through the world, which actually DOES have an effect on the objective reality that we’re all experiencing our own slightly-unique version of.

We learned, confronted, and were boggled by other stuff too, but We don’t want to make your heads explode.  We finally left Kopan behind and re-entered the more familiar world.  But watching over us as we left…

Now we’re on to Crete.  We are ready for Europe and its order and comforts.  We’re thinking of it as a ‘re-entry buffer zone’ to prepare us for coming back to America.

Well we’re thinking about you all, especially…

Daniel Hulpke!  Happy Happy Birthday!

And happy three-months-old day to your Makai!

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Hi Everybody,

Well we finished our ten days of meditation and Tibetan Buddhism at Kopan Monastery. Wow. In the coming week we will attempt to write something about this experience. For the time being, one thing we learned is that the mantra carved on the mani stones is “Om mani padme hum” — literally, “Om jewel lotus heart,” often recited in English as “Hail to the jewel in the heart of the lotus.” But in our class, we learned that:

> the jewel symbolizes compassion;

> the lotus symbolizes wisdom;

> and the heart symbolizes unification…

…So our teachers put it all together for us as, “May wisdom and compassion be unified in me,” so that I may become a source of peace and happiness for all living things. Yes. Thank you Ani Karin, Ani Wy, and all the other teachers at Kopan.

We also learned that when a mosquito bites you, if you just let it finish what it’s doing, when it departs it takes its poison with it (or something like that) so that you don’t get a big itchy mosquito bite. We were skeptical so we did an empirical test. It was creepy because the mosquito took a REALLY long time on Kate’s arm (several minutes), and it itched during. When the mosquito finally left, there was a small welt, which disappeared before long and never turned into a big itchy mosquito bite. Placebo effect? Who knows! We may test this again, if we’re not too creeped out; you can too, though it’s probably best if there’s only one mosquito pestering you.

That’s enough about that. Our real reason for posting today (May 10/11) is to say…

HAPPY MOTHER’S DAY MAMA SUE!!! We love you.

And a very special Happy First Mother’s Day to some new mamas we are thinking about today… Denita! Jesi! Tricia! Jahciel!

And Happy Mother’s Day to all other mothers who may be reading this… Jain! Patricia! Rondi! Staci! Keith! Sue B! Margy! and any others.

And finally…

HAPPY BIRTHDAY DERRY LOVE!!!

May widsom and compassion be unified in all of us, so that we can be sources of comfort and joy for each other and all living things. Yours, Kate & Derry